After an impressive showing in non-conference play, UConn men’s basketball opened up Big East play with a dud of a loss on the road to Seton Hall in Newark. The Huskies looked out of sorts offensively all night and couldn't stop almost anything defensively, as a Kadary Richmond-led Seton Hall team ended up cruising to a comfortable win.
The victory for the Pirates makes it four straight seasons that Seton Hall has beaten UConn at least once. Here are some of our staff’s biggest takeaways from the Huskies’ second loss of the season.
Center might be a problem
Shawn McGrath: This is something that I felt headed into last season. With only stretch fours on the roster and Samson Johnson extremely unproven, the Huskies were going to have to play ultra-small if both Donovan Clingan and Adama Sanogo were hurt or in foul trouble. That situation never really played out with any significance, UConn rolled to a national title and all was good.
This season, I thought the same, as Johnson slid into Clingan’s role as the sophomore big man moved into the starting lineup. While Johnson was injured in the season opener and all but missed the season in 2022-23, at least he was there to start the year and the staff believed in him. This year, there isn’t such a player. There isn’t anyone who could play a traditional power forward and step into being a small-ish center, at least until Youssouf Singare earns minutes. Instead, it would likely be Alex Karaban, who would be a really small center.
This scenario is starting to play out. It didn’t matter in non-conference play, as Clingan was healthy by the time the big-time games came around, and when called upon, Johnson was at worst not a liability, with an impressive performance against Texas. However, he looked lost against Seton Hall on both ends of the floor and picked up four fouls in 12 minutes against Gonzaga.
Meanwhile, Clingan went down with a sprained ankle and he may miss some games. Maybe it was a bad stretch and he plays better Saturday against St. John’s, or a combination of Singare and Karaban will need to play heavy minutes defending Red Storm center Joel Soriano, who stands at 6-foot-11, 250 pounds.
Dan Madigan: For better or worse, this loss to Seton Hall shows that the Huskies really can only go as far as Clingan can take them. When healthy, he is a dominant force on both ends and one of the best rebounders in the country. And even with so much talent around him as Tristen Newton continues to play at an All-American level, Clingan is so clearly what makes this team work.
With Clingan possibly missing time with his ankle sprain, Johnson will need to be more aggressive on the boards and eat up as many minutes as possible as the only true big on the roster. While Karaban could play the five in a pinch, it won't be an option against the likes of Big East foes like St. John’s and Creighton. Singare is theoretically the next logical option, but he has the least minutes (13) of any scholarship player by a large margin and was viewed as the biggest project out of the Huskies’ incoming class. Going forward, UConn could potentially roll out more lineups with Jaylin Stewart, who has been inconsistent offensively but has the size and athleticism to defend most positions.
Madigan: Kansas wrote the book on how to beat the Huskies, and while it’s been duplicated by a few teams, not many have been able to pull it off. Seton Hall, with athleticism and size at every position, was able to do it. By switching screens constantly at every position but center, Shaheen Holloway and the Pirates were able to counter a lot of the UConn offense’s motion. Holloway also mixed in some zone looks at times to keep the Huskies off guard. The result? A lackluster offensive performance — UConn’s worst of the year.
Not many teams can do what Kansas or Seton Hall did — UNC tried and failed — but the playbook is out there. Teams need to be able to switch one through four at a minimum and crash the boards amongst the Huskies’ bigs and Newton, an excellent rebounder. It's up to Dan Hurley to figure out what he can do to counteract it going forward. With a bag of tricks as deep as it is, Hurley certainly can scheme up some ways to avoid this going forward but it is something UConn will have to deal with all season.
Patrick Martin: After a 4-for-21 effort from downtown, is it time to have a conversation about spacing? Tristen Newton and Cam Spencer are now the only players on the team shooting above 35 percent on 3-pointers on the season. Last year’s title team had four, including Adama Sanogo and not counting Nahiem Alleyne, who shot much better than his numbers would suggest later in the season.
Take out the 6-for-9 performance vs. Arkansas Pine Bluff, and Alex Karaban is shooting 6-for-25 since the Kansas game. Spencer has statistically replaced Jordan Hawkins, but who’s replacing Joey Calcaterra? Teams are going to start to dare Stephon Castle, Solomon Ball, and Hassan Diarra to shoot. Clingan and Samson won’t even look at the basket, or at the very least put the ball on the floor and attack the rim on pick-and-pops, which is what made Sanogo so special.
Yes, Clingan’s absence threw the whole night off tilt and the Huskies are still generating good looks. But sample sizes are growing, and its starting to show that there may not be as many plus shooters on the roster as anticipated.
I've been tracking this for #mubb purposes, but not going to lie, the UConn number is scary. They average 14.7 unguarded spot ups a game, 2nd most in the country, and aren't even hitting at an average rate. pic.twitter.com/CmK9M0S2w5— Paint Touches (@PaintTouches) December 18, 2023
If these trends continue or if the space-eating Clingan misses some time, don’t be surprised to see Hurley and the coaching staff adjust the offensive philosophy on the fly, the same way they did after the January skid last year, turning Andre Jackson into a cutter in actions. It may also mean less games with 20-plus threes and a more efficient approach to outside shooting, a la Gonzaga’s 7-17 effort.