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Veteran leadership fuels UConn to Empire Classic title

The Huskies picked up two quality wins, won their second straight MTE, and did it without a key starter. So far their veteran leaders are coming through.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Some thoughts after UConn men’s basketball took care of business in the Empire Classic, beating Indiana 77-57 and defeating No. 15 Texas 77-57.

This team is so legit

Aman: The Huskies are 5-0, ranked No. 3 in KenPom, No. 5 in the AP Poll, and poised to move up after the way they took care of the Empire Classic field. Comfortable wins over Indiana and Texas, while missing a key starter for both games and having another not at 100%, can have that effect.

This year’s Huskies came into the season with a lot of hype. But they also lost three starters to the NBA. Teams don’t just replace that overnight. Guys like Tristen Newton, Alex Karaban, Samson Johnson, and Hassan Diarra are stepping up in big ways compared to what they did last year.

Hurley and the staff reloaded on the recruiting trail but they also have plenty of experience and many of the younger guys are showing signs of advanced maturity. Alex Karaban and Donovan Clingan are just sophomores! Against Texas, two starters were dealing with foul trouble and another’s shots weren’t falling — but they were still up by seven points 2:33 into the game and led by 16 after eight minutes.

The 2023-2024 Huskies are A PROBLEM, and they still have room to grow.

Karaban is that man

Aman: One can’t say enough about how great Alex Karaban’s development has been. He was one of the brightest stories on a national championship team last year as an emergent starter and key contributor as a role player as a freshman. This year, he took on the challenge of becoming a team leader, with his play and by pushing his teammates. The way he closed the Texas game out to make sure nobody had to sweat the ending is the stuff that legends are made of. He was UConn’s leading scorer over these last two games, with 33 points, though Cam Spencer (32 points) and Tristen Newton (31 points) were right there as well.

Dan Madigan: Karaban’s rapid development has been so fun to watch. We’ve seen him add to his game by beating guys 1-on-1 either off the dribble and to the rim or with some step-back midrange jumpers. Those types of moves were not in his bag even as recently as the tournament run last spring.

Depth passing the test

Patrick Martin: The staff did a great job replacing the Big Three void left by Andre Jackson, Jordan Hawkins, and Adama Sanogo. Cam Spencer mirrors Hawkins, while Newton’s also being asked to shoot and score more. Stephon Castle and Solo Ball bring a lot of what Andre Jackson did, and Clingan is the answer at center. The biggest questions in the offseason were who would replace Naheim Alleyne, Joey Calcaterra, and the 2022-2023 version of Donovan Clingan that came off the bench. So far, Hassan Diarra and Samson Johnson have been the key answers to those questions. Let’s talk about those two a little bit more...

Hassan Diarra leading off the bench

Martin: Hassan Diarra received his fair share of derision in the last year — some warranted, some a little harsh — when it became clear he couldn’t play under control and offered little value on the offensive end. ‘All gas no brakes’ only works when you take care of the ball or have a respectable outside shot. This year, Hassan has harnessed that tremendous energy and chaos he plays with, showing improved poise with the ball in his hands while still serving as a physical, point-of-attack defender.

Let’s take this play, a great example of Diarra’s excellent defense. But he also made the smart play with the ball on the other side, whereas last year a Diarra fast break was a highly variable event.

That spin move he had in the paint for an easy two? That’s an entirely different player. Diarra has an assist-turnover ratio of 5.3 in just under 20 minutes per game, and his emergence has allowed Tristen Newton and Spencer to play off the ball more. Per Hoop-Explorer, the below lineup is UConn’s second-most effective of the season.

He’ll never be a knockdown shooter, but his development from year one to year two at Storrs means the Huskies have a capable floor general to at worst steady the second unit, and at best, unlock UConn’s endless amount of playmakers.

Samson Johnson, come on down

Martin: Maybe the ‘wall potential’ comment by Hurley (implying that Johnson could be a lottery pick) wasn’t hyperbole after all. The pterodactyl is here folks, and it’s the feel-good story of the year that also happens to make UConn a legitimate title contender again. This type of production is beyond expectations for even the biggest Samson Johnson supporters. The dunks are sick, but it's his motor and positioning is keeping him on the court. With Donovan Clingan reportedly not at 100%, Johnson logged 27 minutes off the bench against Texas. He’s in the right spots on defense, using his mobility to hedge effectively and length to disrupt passing lanes. His timing on screen-and-rolls is light years better than the player who looked lost on the court in his first two years. Every minute he’s out there you can see him start to embrace his absurd gifts.

It’s so much fun to watch a player who waited patiently for his time, trusted the staff — who get some credit for remodeling him as a rim-running freak instead of a stretch four — and finally get his time to shine.

His plus/minus of +16 led the team last night. The last 10 minutes of the game was a nightmare scenario for Donovan Clingan; a bunch of shifty shotmakers forcing him out of the paint, 24 hours removed from playing the most minutes of his career, all on a foot that was in a boot last month, and perhaps also playing under the weather. Elite teams have a counterpunch when their best weapon is neutralized. Johnson, who had the quickness to stay with Texas’ shotmakers on switches, is one of those for UConn. Lineups with Clingan will encounter that type of small ball again. Now, Hurley knows he has a lever to pull.

Ball developing

Martin: Lost in the Karaban gem and Slamson breakout are plenty of encouraging moments from Solomon Ball. The freshman — along with Diarra — was the prime benefactor of Stephon Castle’s knee injury. Since entering the starting lineup, he’s averaging a steady 8.6 ppg, with two emphatic putback slams last night. Hurley had some post-game commentary expressing that he was pleased with Ball’s development over his three starts.

The lefty’s outside shot is still a little inconsistent, and he’s prone to a freshman mistake or two, but his athleticism is keeping him on the court. With Castle out at least two more games, Ball has a chance to establish himself as last year’s Nahiem Alleyne; a lefty presence on the bench that can provide ball handling, defense, and an occasional splash play. And in the longer term, he has the makeup to take a seismic, Andre Jackson-like, leap next year with much more playing time.