When: Sunday, Jan. 15 — 12 p.m.
Where: XL Center — Hartford, Connecticut
Radio: UConn Sports Network
Odds: UConn -14.5, over/under 151.5 (odds via Borgata)
KenPom Predicted Score: UConn 82, St. John’s 68 — 91 percent win probability
UConn made it through what will almost certainly be the hardest stretch of their regular season, but didn’t come out unscathed. After hitting the road for clashes with Xavier, Providence and Marquette, the Huskies failed to come away with a win in any of those battles with some of the Big East’s best. While it wasn’t all bad — UConn did handle Creighton at Gampel Pavilion to snap a two-game losing streak — the Huskies already have three Big East losses, and worst of all, looked lost at times in the final minutes of their 82-76 loss to Marquette.
While freshmen Donovan Clingan (20 points in 21 minutes) and Alex Karaban (17 points) did everything they could offensively, the rest of the team couldn’t pick up the slack. Adama Sanogo turned in arguably his worst game of the season with 10 points and five turnovers, and Jordan Hawkins made just one basket from the field. Combine that with a concerning trend of yet another ineffective game from the guards on the bench (five total points) and quality shooting for Marquette on the other end, and the formula was there for yet another ranked road loss — the 17th straight for the Huskies.
With the toughest tests of the season in the rearview mirror, UConn looks to return to the form of a team that started off the year with 14 wins against quality opponents. That starts with a St. John’s team that is mostly all bark and no bite. While the Red Storm have a talented backcourt in Posh Alexander and Andre Curbelo, UConn should be able to handle the Johnnies and get back to its winning ways if they still intend on contenders in the Big East.
Despite the three road losses, the Huskies now have all but Creighton left to play at home. If UConn can win those games, a daunting but achievable task, the road to a regular season Big East title is still open. But it will require a new level of execution and precision that the team seemingly hasn’t consistently displayed in nearly a month when they easily handled Butler on the road in their conference opener.
What to watch for
When UConn has the ball: There isn’t any way around it anymore; Clingan has to play more minutes. The Bristol freshman dominated the Golden Eagles Wednesday night for 20 points and 10 boards along with five blocks in just over 20 minutes of work.
Having two elite centers in Sanogo and Clingan is an incredible problem to have for Hurley, but the head coach has to find a way to work him into more lineups. Despite the two bigs playing the same position, it is a more drastic change than most realize.
Clingan is not the post-up threat that Sanogo is, which requires some major changes to a four-out and one-in offense that was essentially built around Sanogo. But Clingan still dominates by crashing the boards and rolling hard off screens and is a talented shot blocker on defense. Whether it’s playing the two together, playing more zone to let Clingan clog up the middle, or just playing Clingan more at Sanogo’s expense, the freshman has earned the right to more minutes and has shown the impact he can have on almost any game.
In the backcourt, the Huskies’ guard woes spread to Jordan Hawkins, who was largely ineffective against Marquette after shooting 1-8 from the field. Sans Andre Jackson, the rest of the backcourt wasn’t any better, as Joey Calcaterra, Nahiem Alleyne and Hassan Diarra combined for five points on 2-9 shooting. With Tristen Newton also sputtering, the backcourt can’t afford to not have some sort of production from Hawkins, a projected first-round draft pick. He needs to continue to run off ball screens to get open and work into the paint with the ball at times as teams are not allowing him to get easy looks around the arc.
When St. John’s has the ball:
Mike Anderson’s St. John’s squad likes to play fast and utilize the break for easy transition buckets. The Red Storm are second in the country in tempo and will likely look to make Sunday’s game a track meet — something that might not be bad for a Huskies team that usually does well in transition.
The Johnnies stick to their strengths on offense — they don’t shoot the three well (32.3 percent), so they don’t shoot many of them, ranking towards the bottom of the NCAA in 3-point attempt percentage. Instead, they rely heavily on bigs Joel Soriano and David Jones. Soriano, at 6-foot-11, dominates the boards on both ends and leads St. John’s in scoring at 16.4 points per game. Jones is the team’s top option with a 27 percent usage rate and is just behind Soriano at 13.6 points per game.
Jones isn’t some super efficient scorer, but uses his size well and attempts to stretch the floor a bit, shooting 32 percent on nearly 100 attempts. After Karaban was picked on so frequently on defense in the loss to Marquette, it’s likely that Jackson guards Jones while Karaban takes 6-foot-4 Dylan Addae-Wusu.
In the backcourt, Curbelo, a highly-touted transfer from Illinois, serves as the floor general in the offense, averaging 5.2 assists per game. He’s joined in the backcourt by Alexander, a preseason All-Big East First Team selection.
While normally known for his defense, Alexander broke out last season as a sophomore, averaging 13.8 points per game with three 20-plus point efforts. So far, Alexander hasn’t been able to recapture that magic, averaging just 9.8 points per game and reaching double figures in just over half of his games. Nonetheless, UConn’s guards will have to keep Curbelo and Alexander out of the lane and force them to take as many deep shots as possible, as Alexander is shooting under 20 percent from three this season. If the Huskies can keep Soriano off the boards on both ends — a major task for Clingan and Sanogo — and clog up the paint to prevent the guards from getting inside, the Huskies should be able to pull away and pick up their fifth conference win.