Defending a national championship is never an easy proposition, especially when the team loses its three best starters. Despite that setback, UConn men’s basketball finds itself still with high hopes for the season, with a preseason top-10 rating and lofty expectations of repeating its championship. Before the Huskies can have a shot at the Final Four, there are still a few key questions that must be answered.
Can Donovan Clingan live up to the All-American projections?
It’s possible no player in UConn history has ever been given higher expectations than Donovan Clingan following a season in which he didn’t start a single game. That’s not to say the expectations are totally unreasonable; though only playing 13 minutes a game, Clingan led the Huskies in Box Plus/Minus and field goal percentage, while providing eye-popping stats on a per-minute basis. In fact, when viewing both players’ stats on a per-minute scale, Clingan’s scoring and rebounding are similar to those of Purdue National Player of the Year Zach Edey—only Clingan has twice as many blocks (and twice as many fouls).
There isn’t much precedent for a sophomore to make the jump from bench player to All-American, so it’s hard to blame any skeptics who want to see more from Clingan before calling him a potential top-10 player in the country. On the other hand, everything points toward him pulling it off. Traditional and advanced stats love his play on both ends of the court, and his game tape shows a player who appears to be NBA-ready.
His positioning and timing are second to none at the center position, and he never seemed to be fatigued even in games when he did get extended minutes. Compare him to Walker Kessler, who went from a little-used freshman at UNC to a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in his sophomore year at Auburn, to NBA All-Rookie the year after that. The potential for the same trajectory exists for Clingan, who is a more dominant offensive player.
The Huskies may need him to play All-American-caliber ball, though. Last year’s team was anchored by a center duo in Clingan and Adama Sanogo that never relented. Playing two great centers meant that opposing offenses never got easy buckets. While excellent, Sanogo didn’t make an All-American team, and Clingan shouldn’t have much trouble performing at a similar level to Sanogo. But in order to repeat, Clingan may need to surpass Sanogo’s production, because, well…
Is Samson Johnson ready to be a major contributor?
Whether Samson Johnson can produce while on the court seems to have been the question on everyone’s mind this offseason. That’s easy to understand, but the implications may not be fully understood just yet. Clingan can replace Sanogo. But can Johnson replace Clingan?
It’s an unfair question to Johnson, who has played only 115 minutes across two seasons. Unfortunately, it’s one that will have to be answered anyway. Johnson will be counted upon to make an impact, and his contributions on the floor could make UConn a contender or put a serious cap on the team’s potential.No pressure, kid.
Part of the reason this has been such a big question is because of the limited exposure Johnson has had so far. Injuries and/or ineffectiveness prevented him from getting much playing time to this point, and what we’ve seen so far has presented a mixed picture. Johnson runs the court well and has the vertical explosiveness and physical tools to succeed as a bench big in the Big East, but in his few minutes on the court he’s looked uncertain and doesn’t seem to quite have the same feel for the game as his teammates, which could present a chemistry issue.
According to Dan Hurley and other members of the team speaking on the record, Johnson has worked hard this offseason in order to justify the playing time he’ll receive this year. If the Huskies get the version of Johnson that his recruiting ranking suggested (47th on the consensus board, over some guy named Jordan Hawkins), there’s no question he can become an impact player.
Which of the bench freshmen can make an impact?
Stephon Castle is likely to be in the starting lineup from the season opener, so while there are always question marks with any freshman making their collegiate debut, his role is more or less defined already. As for the four other freshmen, it’s hard to say which (if any) will stand out among the second unit. But since every player on the UConn bench can be accurately described as unproven, one of the freshmen will have to step up, if even just by necessity.
Solo Ball will likely be a combo guard who will see minutes backing up Tristen Newton, while his AAU teammate Jayden Ross is more of a traditional three but is springy. I think both will eventually be UConn fan favorites due to their tenacious style of play, but they may need time to adjust to the Big East.
Youssouf Singare is a raw center, but has good size and feel for the game, and had success playing through contact at the high school level. I like his long-term outlook, but for this year he’s likely only a deep bench player; an insurance policy in case Samson Johnson doesn’t pan out.
That leaves Seattle native Jaylin Stewart, who in my eyes is the answer to this question. Stewart has an Alex Karaban-esque frame, and while he’ll probably play as more of a wing, he can also match up against opposing power forwards. He has legitimate NBA upside — it helps that his high school coach was three-time All-Star Brandon Roy — and both the versatility and right-now skill to be the best player on the UConn bench if everything goes right.
The bench play was vital to UConn’s title last year, and the championship might not have happened if not for players like Clingan and Joey Calcaterra. With only unproven options after the starters, it would help for two of the Husky freshmen to be ready in their first year at Storrs.
Can Tristen Newton and Cam Spencer make the leaps UConn needs?
If this was the UConn team two years ago, I’m not sure we would even be asking this question. Newton and Spencer are both obviously good players, capable of being starters on a winning team. But things change when you have championship aspirations, and suddenly a team might need good players to become great players. Newton and Spencer are replacing a pair of NBA rookies, and given the uncertain bench situation, they will likely have to play the best basketball of their lives for the Huskies to make it back to the Final Four.
We know the most about Newton, especially for his fit within this team. He’s a quality lead guard who can do a little bit of everything, and can be dangerous shooting from the perimeter. At the same time, his penetration and shot selection leaves something to be desired, as he shot only 38% from inside the arc last season.
Spencer is a steadier player and was one of the best shooters in the nation last year at Rutgers, and a quality passer, but doesn’t have a lot of foot speed and he may be better off playing within a system rather than creating plays on his own—something both Hawkins and Andre Jackson were able to do.
Ultimately, I think this one will take some figuring out. Hurley has shown a knack for getting individuals to maximize their ability by getting creative and allowing players to play to their strengths. Newton might not need to be the Huskies’ top scorer, and Spencer might not need to be a creator to have a major offensive impact.
Who guards the opponent’s best player?
Your guess might be as good as mine here.
In all seriousness, I think UConn fans took Andre Jackson for granted for much of his career. The defensive versatility of a player with that much ability cannot be overstated at the collegiate level. Jackson didn’t always guard the opponent’s best player, but it allowed the defense to throw a variety of looks at opposing offenses and continually give the Huskies the other hand.
The defensive rock this year will be Clingan, who will undoubtedly be able to clean up a lot of his teammates’ mistakes. But within individual matchups, it’s harder to see who will be getting the tough assignments. Newton was passable defensively, but not one of the best defenders on the team. Spencer was good at Rutgers, but didn’t draw the tough assignments thanks to teammate Caleb McConnell. Castle is a freshman and might not be ready. Karaban will be needed at the four. Hassan Diarra got better defensively last year, but his offensive limitations might keep him off the floor for long stretches.
There isn’t a clear answer. Eventually, someone will assume the mantle of UConn’s top defender, but that seems likely to happen mid-season, and whoever takes the role probably won’t have the same impact as Jackson, or Christian Vital, or Ryan Boatright.
Thankfully, having a center who blocks a lot of shots solves a lot of defensive issues.