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Takeaways: UConn men’s basketball falls to St. John’s

The Huskies are rapidly unraveling in conference play after starting 14-0.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

UConn men’s basketball has now dropped four games out of five after its 85-74 defeat to St. John’s on Sunday afternoon. The Huskies, now 15-4 and ranked No. 15 in the most recent AP Poll, look far removed from the team that started out 14-0 and established themselves as one of the best in the country. Here are some of the biggest takeaways from UConn’s fourth loss of the season.

The Jordan Hawkins Game

Shawn McGrath: Jordan Hawkins played a tremendous game, despite the high turnover numbers. He was the only consistent bright spot on Sunday, as Alex Karaban was only 2-7 from beyond the arc and Adama Sanogo was quiet for a decent chunk of the first half. Without Hawkins and his 31 points on just 16 shots, this scoreline would have been much worse. He was able to drive and finish inside and was hot from outside, hitting 4-9 of his 3-pointers. If he can continue to finish around the rim, teams will have to respect that, which will give him the space to operate outside, which is his best skill.

Dan Madigan: Jordan Hawkins was the only Husky that really showed up in the first half, scoring 20 points and doing about everything on offense to help UConn keep up with St. John’s. While Hawkins was getting run off the perimeter and doing basically nothing about against Marquette, the sophomore had more tenacity against the Red Storm, frequently driving into the lane and finishing with authority. This eventually gave him more space to shoot from the perimeter, where he finished the day 4-9 from three. While he wasn’t perfect — he had seven turnovers — he still was one of the few bright spots in an overall discouraging UConn performance.

Alex Karaban emerging

Madigan: Outside of Hawkins, Adama Sanogo, Donovan Clingan and Alex Karaban, the Huskies’ offense is crumbling. However, Karaban has quietly emerged as a very steady contributor and a key piece of the UConn lineup throughout the Huskies’ struggles. The freshman has reached double figures in three of the Huskies’ four losses and has consistently hit big shots to keep UConn within games when the offense was stuck. On Sunday, Karaban was a major factor again with 16 points and five rebounds, including two big 3-pointers.

While he has been picked on defensively in bigger games, his shooting (36.7 percent from three) and passing ability is more than enough to make him stay in the starting lineup, even when opening night starter Samson Johnson eventually returns. It might not be the best sign that Karaban, a freshman on a team with an All-America candidate and two potential NBA draft picks, is the team’s best player right now, but it shows that he’s holding his own and can be a piece UConn can lean on down the stretch.

“Karaban is the most solid guy out there,” Hurley said postgame. “That’s not where we want to be right now. Obviously, Jordan had numbers but had seven turnovers.”

Secondary scoring is a worry

McGrath: The Huskies may have broken into the 70s, but the offense was not great and scored less than a point per possession. Aside from a Hassan Diarra lay-up late in the first half, UConn didn’t get a field goal from someone not named Hawkins, Karaban or Adama Sanogo until the final 90 seconds when the game was already out of reach. For a team that wants to roll nine guys out there on any given night, more than four guys need to make a field goal. Diarra was wild, Nahiem Alleyne struggled, Joey Calcaterra missed several in close and Donovan Clingan only played nine minutes because of foul trouble. If UConn wants to re-assert its claim as one of the best teams in the country, then Tristen Newton will have to take more than one shot and execution in close will have to be better from everyone.

“We want to play the bench guys more. We’re desperate to get production from the bench. Donovan gets a pass, the guy has been unbelievable for us. For us to reach our potential as a team, I want to play Nahiem 22-24 minutes…I’m desperate to Nahiem going,” Hurley said. “I want Hassan to push Tristen in games where [Tristen] doesn’t have it so we have another option there.

Defensive lapses

Madigan: UConn’s defense, arguably their calling card throughout Hurley’s tenure in Storrs, looked completely lost against a truly middling St. John’s offense. For a Red Storm team that almost refuses to shoot threes, and does so at a poor clip anyways, UConn continued to pressure the perimeter hard. While it kept threes in check — St. John’s shot 2-13 from deep — the Red Storm got into the lane at will and shot 62.2 percent on 2-point shots. Letting a team shoot over 60 percent on easy shots inside the arc is a surefire strategy to lose games to just about anyone. In fact, that clip is one of the worst marks UConn has posted in the KenPom era — joined by the Xavier game the Huskies lost just over two weeks ago.

Last season, UConn could get away with strong perimeter defense with elite shot blockers like Isaiah Whaley and Akok Akok in the paint. While the same may be true with Clingan to a degree, it is not the case with Sanogo in the middle. If UConn wants to continue applying perimeter pressure, the Huskies need to do a better job of identifying shooters and closing off gaps to prevent easy cuts to the lane.

“It’s terrible on-ball defense. It’s a lack of identification of guys that are non-shooters so drivers are seeing huge gaps in the defense,” Hurley said. “And guys that are struggling defensively are struggling offensively and they’re taking struggles to the defensive end of the court.”