Here’s what stood out from Monday night’s highly-anticipated season opener.
Samson Johnson, welcome to the show
Dan Madigan: Johnson really does look like an entirely different player than the last time we saw him on the basketball court. The extra size he put on hasn’t hampered his bounce at all, and he looks great, setting high screens and rolling to the center of the paint for easy lobs. He needs to stay out of foul trouble if he wants consistent minutes, but he should be a dynamic option for UConn off the bench this season.
Patrick Martin: So about those fouls, because we all know how Big East refs like to take over a game. The first two were quick whistles in a span of 30 seconds, and just after his first alley-oop. I’m ready to chalk that up to adrenaline; this is a dude who played only 15 games in his entire first two years. After those two quick whistles, he picked up only two fouls in his remaining 16 minutes, not bad at all! He worked himself into the game nicely. A few more tilts against cupcakes will get his confidence to a point where he’s not overextending.
Samson Johnson is gonna be a PROBLEM!— UConn Men's Basketball (@UConnMBB) November 7, 2023
8-0 run, good guys pic.twitter.com/DywSZzoipq
Alex Karaban is ready to lead (and maybe play center?)
Patrick Martin: It’s one game against a directional school, but it was a great start to the ‘Alex Karaban is going to get drafted’ campaign. His +/- of 33 led the team, his seven rebounds were tied for second, and he was always in the right spot on both ends of the court. He also had no turnovers, which is critical considering the backcourt duo of Tristen Newton and Stephon Castle had three apiece.
His outside shooting is the perfect complement to Donovan Clingan’s space-eating presence inside. and given the embarrassment of riches at Dan Hurley’s disposal, it’s hard to imagine an opposing team’s best player drawing his assignment. If they do, watch the driving lanes open up for UConn’s backcourt. Beyond taking advantage of all the spacing and mismatches, he’s the one bringing the team together for huddles with an increased vocal presence.
Oh and how about Hurley slotting him in as a small ball center?! The jury’s out if that becomes a Thing, but for one game, it looked pretty, pretty good. As Jim Calhoun said on the broadcast to John Fanta, to succeed in March you have to play different styles of basketball to win across a season. With Karaban, Newton, and Castle combining for 19 rebounds, maybe there’s enough glass cleaning and switchability from the guards to give small ball some run.
Cam Spencer fills the gaps
Aman: The first thing Hurley said after the game was that Spencer’s performance, focusing on facilitating while only taking three shots, was “the story of the game.” He led the Huskies with five assists and Karaban said afterward that Spencer is capable of being a high scorer, but the new transfer demonstrated his willingness to help the team in any way possible with the way he played in the opener. Hurley said that unselfishness sets the tone for everyone this season.
Hurley's first comment after the game was in praise of Can Spencer, "maybe the best thing I saw tonight"— Storrs Central (@StorrsCentral) November 7, 2023
"His willingness to take 3 shots and just elevate the people around him...was the story of the night" pic.twitter.com/g7fYwe5pjj
Castle impresses in debut
Aman: For a first game, to come in as the starting point guard on the reigning national champs, he played really well. A different opponent may have punished him a bit more on both ends of the floor but luckily we’re early in the season. It’s clear Castle is ready for the big stage and will deliver some outstanding performances across the year.
Clingan looks strong as ever
Madigan: Clingan has incredibly high expectations this year and so far he looks to be meeting them. He was his usual self throwing down lobs and altering shots on defense, but I was pretty impressed with his ability to score in the post and finish with either hand, something he struggled with at times last season. Hurley said after the game that Clingan was a little rusty, but that should pass. It was good to see him attempt nine free throws and a three, and I’m still confident he will improve mightily as a shooter this season. The form is more than good enough to be better than the 48.6 percent he shot from the stripe last season.
The new Big 3
Patrick Martin: Hurley is if anything, a creature of habit. UConn wins a national championship behind the play of a Big 3 of Andre Jackson, Adama Sanogo, and Jordan Hawkins. So he’s gonna run it back and anoint a new Big 3 of Tristen Newton, Alex Karaban, and Donovan Clingan. This trio piled up 48 points and 22 rebounds and could have gone for more but nobody played more than 30 minutes. If those are baseline numbers, it’s the making of a prolific offense with incredibly balanced production.
Madigan: Jaylin Stewart didn't exactly light it up in terms of the box score but I was impressed with how he handled himself all game. He had a great finish on the fast break in transition and then followed it up with an athletic put-back in traffic while getting fouled. His size and speed really stood out; he’s someone who can impact this year's team around the rim and on defense, where he should be able to guard multiple positions.
Martin: Hoopers out of Seattle are a different breed, and you can already see Jamal Crawford’s impact on that basketball community with Stewart’s polish in spot minutes. Remember, he came in later than the other four freshmen and had some injury setbacks over the summer. If Karaban continues to log some minutes at a small ball center, then Stewart might see his number get called sooner rather than later.
Aman: Solo Ball can ball. He seems like an intense defender who will give UConn great minutes this year in a limited bench role.