When: Friday, March 17
Where: MVP Arena — Albany, New York
TV: TBS — Want to watch the Huskies all tournament long? Sign up for SlingTV to watch all of the March Madness games.
Radio: UConn Sports Network
Odds: UConn -9.5, over/under 141 - Odds presented by DraftKings
KenPom Predicted Score: No. 4 UConn 77, No. 13 Iona 68 | 80 percent win probability
UConn men’s basketball’s quest for a fifth national title begins Friday as the 4-seed Huskies take on 13-seed Iona in Albany, New York in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Dan Hurley is still in search of his first NCAA tournament win as UConn head coach and will have his work cut out for him against Hall of Famer Rick Pitino, a person of questionable morality who is without a doubt one of the best coaches in the sport.
Pitino’s Gaels are dancing for the second time in three seasons, holding a 27-7 record and a No. 74 ranking in KenPom with an active 14-game winning streak, the third-longest streak in the nation, while claiming the MAAC regular season and conference tournaments along the way.
The Gaels’ competition in the MAAC was lacking — they haven't played a team better than the top 200 in KenPom since January, and went 1-3 against teams in the KenPom top 100 this season. Despite the lackluster résumé, Iona will remain in the spotlight as a trendy Cinderella team for as long as Pitino roams the sidelines there, which may only be about a week or so given his recent comments.
: MUST WATCH - I asked Rick Pitino about the St. John's opening and if he'd like to stay at #Iona. Take a listen to his answer. #MarchMadness @PIX11News pic.twitter.com/ZOXDCaoRVH— Justin Walters (@JustinWaltersTV) March 12, 2023
Hurley may not have the credentials of Pitino, but the Huskies’ head coach does have a team that is better in almost every way on paper. While the West region is loaded, sports books still like UConn’s chances, giving the Huskies the ninth-best odds to win it all at +1800 and -110 odds to make it out of the first weekend and reach the Sweet 16.
When UConn Has the Ball
One of the Huskies’ biggest weaknesses on offense is with turnovers — UConn has turned the ball over a total of 34 times in its last three losses and ranks 234th nationally in offensive turnover percentage. The backcourt of Tristen Newton and Andre Jackson, along with Adama Sanogo, who has the third-highest turnover rate amongst starters, will need to be smart with the ball against a high-pressured Iona defense that ranks 44th nationally in turnover percentage.
Sanogo and Jordan Hawkins should be the two best players on the court at any given time, but both will have their work cut out for them due to the nature of the Gaels’ defense. For a mid-major, Iona has a decent amount of size and is one of the top shot-blocking teams in the country, ranking No. 4 nationally in block percentage. Nelly Junior Joseph, a 6-foot-9 forward, joins 7-footer Osborn Shema in the starting lineup to anchor likely the best defensive frontcourt of any double-digit seed in the tournament. Sanogo and Donovan Clingan will need to operate efficiently down low and watch out for weak side defenders coming in for easy blocks.
If UConn can attack the post and get Joseph or Shema into foul trouble in the first half, it could open up the game for the Huskies — like Hurley, Pitino shies away from playing his guys when they rack up two quick fouls. If not, shot-blocking teams tend to be prone to giving up extra rebounds, and that bodes well for UConn, which remains the No. 1 offensive rebounding team in the country.
Meanwhile, Hawkins will look to bounce back from arguably his worst performance of the season, a five-point effort in the Big East semifinal loss to Marquette.
Hawkins has now scored single digits as many times in March (twice in four games) as he did the entire rest of the season. He will now need to bounce back against a Gaels defense that will not only surely try to run him off the 3-point line all game, but excels at defending the deep ball. Opponents have shot just 29.2 percent against Iona from 3-point range this season, but it’s unlikely Pitino and the Gaels have faced a shooter of Hawkins’ caliber who can blow a game wide open with a lightning-quick release and seemingly unlimited range.
With so much pressure offensively on Sanogo and Hawkins, the likes of Newton and Jackson, combined with a seemingly revived bench of Clingan, Nahiem Alleyne, and Joey Calcaterra, may have to carry some of the scoring load for stretches.
When Iona has the ball
Iona can shoot the rock, hitting 36 percent from deep as a team, led by sharpshooter Walter Clayton (42.9 percent) and Danish Jenkins (36.4 percent). Shema, a 37.1 percent shooter on 62 attempts, may be out wide more often on offense to keep Sanogo and Clingan out of the paint. Despite having a knockdown shooter in Clayton and a floor-stretching big in Shema, Iona ranks near the bottom of the country in relying on 3-pointers. That might change Friday against a UConn team that can roll out two dominant bigs in Sanogo and Clingan for an entire 40 minutes.
Aside from Clayton and Jenkins, Joseph is the third part of Iona’s three-pronged attack. Unlike Clayton and Jenkins, Joseph doesn't shoot from outside but uses his size (6-foot-9, 240 pounds) to create contact and get to the foul line. Joseph is one of the weaker free throw shooters on the team at 62.4 percent but has taken nearly as many himself (218 attempts) as the rest of the Gaels’ starters combined, making him a major challenge for two UConn big men in Sanogo and Clingan that can get foul-happy for stretches.
With Joseph and Shema down low, Iona is a solid offensive rebounding team in its own right, and the backcourt of Clayton and Jenkins does a good job at limiting turnovers on the offensive end. If UConn does slip up and the Gaels are ahead late, free throws won’t be an issue for Iona. Jenkins is a competent shooter at 78.2 percent, while Clayton is the second-best free throw shooter in the country at 95.1 percent in over 100 attempts.