Last year, Dan Hurley’s rebuild of the UConn men’s basketball program took a step forward as the Huskies returned to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in five seasons. UConn earned a No. 7 seed but fell to No. 10 seed Maryland in an underwhelming performance.
This year, the Huskies are back with a higher seed and poised to win at least one game, maybe more.
UConn’s No. 5 seed is the highest the Huskies have had since claiming their third national title in 2011. They’ll kick off their 2022 NCAA Tournament against a No. 12 New Mexico State team that boasts an elite scorer in Teddy Allen and comparable size to the Huskies.
While reaching the NCAA Tournament two years in a row is an achievement in itself, Hurley and his team knows that at UConn, that isn’t enough. With so much of last year’s team back this season, the Huskies are looking to make their mark.
“We aren’t just happy to be there,” Huskies guard R.J. Cole told the Hartford Courant’s Shreyas Laddha. “I think we have a real opportunity to make some noise in the tournament and make a run.”
When: 6:50 p.m. ET
Where: KeyBank Center — Buffalo, New York
Radio: UConn Sports Network
KenPom Predicted Score: UConn 70, New Mexico State 64 | 71% chance for UConn to win
When UConn has the ball
NMSU has more size than the typical mid-major team — the Aggies’ average height is just four spots behind UConn’s in KenPom — but the Huskies will still look to run their offense through Adama Sanogo. The sophomore struggled mightily in the Big East Tournament, shooting 8-26 from the floor, but still managed to put together 21 points and 24 rebounds in two games.
Despite his struggles last week at Madison Square Garden, the big man has the trust of his head coach and teammates and should be able to impose his will against the Aggies, whose frontcourt is anchored by sophomore center Will McNair and senior Johnny McCants. The 6-foot-10 McNair will likely be on Sanogo most of the night, with McCants tasked with guarding Isaiah Whaley. Sanogo should be able to use his strength and footwork to move around McNair, while Whaley may have to hit some threes to pull McCants, the team’s best shot blocker, out of the paint.
Tyrese Martin is fresh off All-Big East Tournament honors and should have plenty of chances to keep his hot scoring streak rolling against the Aggies. While NMSU has done well defending the three this season, Martin’s ability to crash the glass should be able to get him going even if 3-point opportunities are there right away. The Aggies have a sizable backcourt with Jabary Rice and Clayton Henry, both at 6-foot-4, but Martin is bigger and stronger and should be able to post up either guard for some scores.
RJ Cole will, like always, be relied on to bail out the Huskies if things get late in the shot clock, but will be challenged by those bigger guards. While Martin has gotten the recognition as of late, Cole has been his usual steady self, scoring 28 points and shooting nearly 40 percent from three in two games at MSG, including an 11-point, 8-rebound, 8-assist game against Villanova.
Look for Cole, Martin, and Andre Jackson to try and attack Teddy Allen — the heart and soul of the Aggies’ offense — early on to get the senior into foul trouble. NMSU head coach Chris Jans adheres strictly to the two foul rule, with some of the lowest two-foul participation in the sport. If UConn can get Allen into hot water early, it could easily neutralize the Aggies’ best chance at an upset.
When New Mexico State has the ball
The Aggies’ offense starts and ends with senior guard Teddy Allen, who ranks 35th in the country in scoring at 19.2 points per game. As an experienced player who has already spent time at West Virginia and Nebraska before coming to NMSU, Allen is familiar with the physicality of top-tier college teams and will be tasked to do everything in his power to keep the Aggies in the game.
At 6-foot-6, he’ll likely be defended by Martin, Jackson, or Tyler Polley for stretches. Allen isn’t exactly an efficient scorer but still gets buckets, especially in the lane. He excels at drawing fouls and getting to the free-throw line, where he’s an 86.5 percent shooter.
UConn’s defenders will let Allen stay out deep and shoot, considering he’s shooting just 31.7 percent from three on nearly 200 attempts. If he does get into the lane, he’ll still have to contend with Whaley and Sanogo, likely two of the best shot blockers he’s seen all season.
Aside from Allen, Rice is the only other player that averages double figures (12.2 points per game) and is the main facilitator in the NMSU offense. He’s also the only other player that plays significant minutes on a per-game basis, as Jans likes to use a deep rotation that could stretch to as many as 10 players.
The Aggies don’t shoot the ball well from deep — they shoot just over 30 percent as a team — but Henry is a dark horse shooter to keep an eye on. He’s used sparingly on offense, but is shooting 37.5 percent from deep on the season and hit 3-8 3-point attempts in the WAC Tournament.