Somewhere in middle America, it was a tight game all around, with No. 21 UConn men’s basketball walking across the edge of where a win meets a loss just like it was walking across a wire in a circus. Ultimately, No. 23 Creighton got revenge for the 69-60 Husky victory last month, as the Bluejays were 56-53 winners on Saturday.
Here’s what we learned over the weekend:
Dan Hurley’s gameplan worked
Dan Madigan: Hurley’s gameplay for Creighton was remarkably simple — lean on one of his best players to neutralize one of the Bluejays’ stars. The Adama Sanogo-Ryan Kalkbrenner rivalry delivered once again on Saturday, with Hurley utilizing Sanogo more than ever as a 3-point threat to keep Kalkbrenner, one of the top shot-blockers in the conference, out of the paint.
Sanogo executed the plan almost perfectly against his rival, setting career highs in 3-pointers made (three) and attempted (seven), the most he has taken this year since... the last Creighton game. While the numbers came out the same as usual for Sanogo (17 points, 10 boards), it was exciting to see him knock down a handful of big 3-point shots and help stretch the floor. He’s now 40 percent from beyond the arc on the season, and his recent hot shooting from deep means Hurley may be more comfortable pairing Sanogo with fellow big man Donovan Clingan for longer stretches in crunch time as the regular season comes to a close.
While it wasn’t enough to get the W Saturday, Hurley showed he has a plan of attack to expose Creighton on defense and give UConn as many quality looks on offense as possible. The Huskies didn’t get enough of them to drop this time, but it could be a very different story on a neutral, UConn-friendly crowd at Madison Square Garden if these two teams see each in the Big East Tournament.
Ryan Goodman: Usually when you take a look at the box score and see Adama Sanogo tying for the team lead in three-point attempts it’s bad news for the Huskies but Creighton was giving him the shot all game long and he was making it. I would rather this not happen every game, but I am more than fine with Sanogo taking a few of those - maybe even four-to-five sometimes - if the look is there. I’m also glad Dan Hurley gave him the green light to be more aggressive from long range. He’s now shooting 40 percent on a healthy 40 total attempts. Kalkbrenner, who is known as maybe the best defensive big man in the conference, was embarrassed by Sanogo yet again. The Big East’s leading scorer averaged 21.5 points and 9.5 boards against Creighton this year. UConn needs Sanogo to be firing on all cylinders to make a run in March, and while the offense struggled as a whole, Creighton is a phenomenal defensive team, especially with its versatility and ability to not foul. It was great to see Sanogo still have an old-fashioned dominant performance against a bigger and longer opponent, which is the exact mold that’s given him fits in the past. I know Greg McDermott wants none of UConn at Madison Square Garden in March, but they may end up seeing each other yet again in the tournament. Bring ‘em on again.
Shot selection still an issue
Madigan: There were just too many deep, early in the shot clock 3-pointers again that essentially just became turnovers. I can think of at least three or four in the second half alone. Creighton made it tough to get playmakers the ball with its deny defense on Jordan Hawkins, but I would have liked to see the guards make more of an effort to get into the paint. Even with Kalkbrenner possibly clogging up the middle, a kick out pass could lead to a better look. Some of this is just because the Bluejays’ defense is (uncharacteristically) elite this year — they own the best defensive efficiency ranking that UConn has faced in the Big East all season, but the likes of Tristen Newton, Alex Karaban and Sanogo should be able to get to the basket if Hawkins is locked up.
Bench play improving
Madigan: No one on the bench really set the world on fire tonight, but I thought Nahiem Alleyne took another big step forward after hitting some key shots in the first half and playing quality defense throughout. If he can keep up his confidence offensively, he will do wonders to space the floor for this team as a shooter and has shown the ability to get into the paint, especially on the left side.
Clingan once again changed the game in the first half when he entered by dominating the boards on both ends. He’s just a rebounding machine. I understand the lack of minutes when the game plan is to lean on Sanogo to pull Kalkbrenner out, but I don’t think he should play less than 10 minutes again at any point this season. His presence on the court is almost always a massive momentum shift in UConn’s favor. It’s up to Hurley to find more ways to get him on the floor for longer.
The elephant in the room
Goodman: I really don’t want to keep beating a dead horse but it’s just a fact that Andre Jackson is a liability in the half-court offense. If I have to hear UConn is playing 5-on-4 on offense one more time my head might explode but it definitely does have some truth to it. Yes, he does create extra possessions with his offensive rebounding prowess, but he simply cannot score the basketball no matter how far away his defender sags. I am still on board with him taking a couple of 3-pointers per game, because even though his shot is one of the least flattering spectacles in college basketball, he is still capable of making a couple, especially if his defender is giving him a warm-up shot.
What I would like to see more out of Jackson is utilizing his athleticism more in the half-court and I don’t mean for offensive boards. He’s one of the craftiest guys in the country with the ball in his hands, and is genuinely great at setting up teammates for points, but I feel as though he could maybe be even more effective if he actually attacked the basket more often instead of throwing up the 12-foot floater that goes in one out of every five or so. Andre Jackson has shot 25 free throws this entire season and made 17. To put this into perspective, Tristen Newton had 17 attempts in a single game earlier in the year. That number is criminally low.
Andre is still my favorite player on this team because of his overall impact and I really cannot stress enough how much worse UConn would be defensively if it didn’t have him, but Dan Hurley has to at least try something different for him in the half-court. If the bench isn’t hitting like it did in the beginning of the year, playing 5-on-4 on offense is far from ideal this late in the season.
Madigan: The Jackson issues are so puzzling to me. He’s obviously not a lights-out shooter, but he’s still much better than the outputs we’ve seen in these past few games. I think he is constantly deciding between shooting or passing until the last second, trying to figure out which option is better for the team. If he is going to shoot, he needs to commit to it fully. With teams playing so far off him, I am still fine with Jackson shooting 3-pointers. It’s certainly a risk, but hitting just one drastically changes how opponents defend this team in the game and make things easier on offense for everyone. It’s hard to ask for more from someone who is clearly working their tail off.
I don’t think this shooting slump is something permanent and I do believe it will get better. A confident Jackson hitting shots, grabbing boards and playing lockdown defense would be the key for this team to reach the peaks it did earlier this year.