UConn men’s basketball is now 40 minutes away from the Final Four, as the 4-seed Huskies grabbed a dominant, wire-to-wire victory over 8-seed Arkansas on Thursday.
UConn is officially back
Shawn McGrath: Everyone loves to ask the question and say it, mostly in jest, but this one was poetic. In Kevin Ollie’s final season, Arkansas beat the Huskies by 35 points in the PK80, one day after a 20-point defeat at the hands of Michigan State.
For many, that game against the Razorbacks was the low point for UConn in a rapid descent following the 2014 national championship.
Now, in Year 5 of the Dan Hurley era and after two NCAA Tournament bids with brutal losses, the new head man is now above .500 in the Big Dance in Storrs and is one win away from the program’s sixth Final Four. The Huskies did so by issuing a beatdown to that same Arkansas program.
UConn is in the Elite Eight for the 12th time in program history and has the third-best odds of winning the national championship. That seems “back” to me.
Goodman: This may have been the best game I’ve ever seen a UConn team play, certainly in at least a decade, besides some other performances from earlier this year, like against Alabama. With everything that was at stake and how flawlessly the Huskies executed a new game plan, going 58% from the field, 45% from the three, 81% from the line, and +12 on the boards is amazing. The 17 turnovers isn’t great, as they were a tad careless with the ball in some instances but most of them were with the game well in hand and they were doing so well in every other facet of the game.
Sanogo and Hawkins combined for 42 points, Andre Jackson looked like LaMelo Ball on the break, racking up seven dimes, Calc and Alleyne splashing timely threes with Clingan turning away shots at the rim and everyone else filling their roles to perfection. It was an absolute masterpiece. UConn can beat anyone right now and I think it is safe to say they are the hottest team in America.
Aman: Don’t forget, they have a top-5 recruiting class joining them next year. Not only is UConn back, but the program is set up for continued success in the future.
Jordan Hawkins can score from anywhere
Dan Madigan: Hawkins may not have been locked in from deep early, but the star sophomore stayed aggressive to get on the score sheet in the first half against Arkansas. Even as shots weren't falling and Arkansas had some success early running him off the 3-point line, Hawkins got to the rim for easy layups or got fouled, where he was 9-9 from the free throw line.
The 3-pointers eventually came, as he hit a few big shots to bust the game wide open and squash any chance of an Arkansas comeback, finishing with a game-high 24 points. UConn has been so good so far this tournament, but the only real gripe so far has been with Hawkins’ quiet first halves. He put that to rest Thursday night and showed how he can avoid it going forward.
Goodman: A big reason why Hawkins took a massive jump his season was his ability to get the rim and not just rely on his outside shot. This seemed to grow his confidence and once he saw a couple of those go down it was over. Hawkins hit three 3s over a six-minute span in the second half. With all of the NBA prospects Arkansas had on display, Hawkins stole the spotlight and proved that he belongs in the discussion of top shooting guard prospects.
Backcourt got the job done
Madigan: Andre Jackson and Tristen Newton may not have had their highest-scoring games, but they played just about perfectly to carve up the Razorbacks. The two combined for 13 points, 14 rebounds and 14 assists against Arkansas and were an efficient 5-11 from the floor. Jackson was an agent of chaos on the boards all night, and Newton may not have scored much but hit two deep threes early helped the Huskies pull away. Turnovers were definitely an issue (the duo had seven of UConn’s 17), but the two guards did enough on both ends of the court to not let them come back to hurt them.
The game plan worked
Patrick Martin: Hurley credited Kimani Young for handling the Arkansas scout. It’s no secret what Arkansas’ strengths were, but it’s another thing to craft a gameplan for a challenging, athletic opponent and have it work like this to perfection.
From the tip, the Huskies seemed to know this was a team that wasn’t going to beat them with threes. They ducked under screens, put Sanogo in drop coverage, and mixed in heaping amounts of Donovan Clingan for rim protection.
Jackson said after the game: “The coaches did a good job with the scout every game. We were in the gaps a lot, not allowing guys to get straight-line drives, and that caused them to shoot questionable shots and some bad attempts.”
Compare this to the St. John’s loss in January — the definitive nadir of the season — where UConn chased 30% shooters off the three-point line and fouled like crazy. Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman is still a great coach, but his tendency to exploit mismatches was completely neutralized by the more aggressive, cohesive Huskies.
It wasn’t just the defensive scout. There was an innate trust in the personnel on offense. Noted Hurley: “we make 3s a lot. And it’s hard to get 3s against Arkansas because they do such a great job. They’ve got such great length on the perimeter. Those guys are so athletic. But, again, when you have dominant centers, it creates pretty good looks at 3.”
The crisp ball movement, combined with the gravity Sanogo attracted, meant Arkansas’ length was completely negated by motion. The Hogs were flying around the court, scrambling to cover for one another as the Huskies continually found the open man.
It was some of the prettiest basketball of the season, and it happened on the biggest and brightest stage.
What a team
Aman: At halftime, all five starters had at least six points as the Huskies held a 22-9 rebounding advantage. On the night, they assisted on 22 of 31 made shots, nearly doubled up Arkansas on points in the paint and bench points, and led by as much as 29, pure dominance in the Sweet 16.
Also, Sanogo, Hassan Diarra, and Samson Johnson played while fasting for Ramadan - incredible!