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No. 14 UConn Men’s Basketball Bench: Finding its Form at the Right Time

The Huskies have righted the ship thanks to improved play from key bench pieces.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Three months ago, I wrote an article that sounded like a New York Times editorial: Is UConn Men’s Basketball TOO Deep?

At the time of that writing, the only bench better than UConn’s was the Savannah one in Forrest Gump. But as the Big East hierarchy coalesced in the first month of 2023, that take ended up aging like day-old milk. Joey Calcaterra couldn’t hit water from a boat. Hassan Diarra was a chaotic neutral instead of a chaotic good, Nahiem Alleyne was still in the land of the lost, and Donovan Clingan looked more like a freshman than urban legend.

It’s March now, the No. 14 Huskies are now winners of seven of their last eight, feasting on the soft underbelly of their schedule and taking revenge at home. At the forefront of their midseason turnaround is the bench finding its mojo again. With the Big East tournament less than a week away, what does Dan Hurley have with his reserves? The answer, as is often the case, is not so black and white.

California Love

Joey Calcaterra shot 5 of 22 from 3-point range in January. In February, he went 9 of 12. Connect the dots; Katy Perry —conveniently also a California native — has a song called “Hot and Cold.” Coincidence? People are talking …

When the shots fall, California has also proven adept at taking what the defense gives him. On the road against St. John’s, he also shot four free throws, his first to the charity stripe since Dec. 21. Consider at this dime to Clingan, someone who Calcaterra always seems to find in the right spots:

Note the DePaul defender had to stop ball at the Husky logo. That’s the respect California commands, which in turn opens up acres of space for teammates. Will he continue to shoot 75 percent from outside? No, but the hope is the days of 22 percent are behind him.

Kling Kong Ain’t Got Nothing on Me!

Clingan hasn’t really slumped, per se, his minutes just tend to fluctuate based on game flow and fouls. When he plays 15 or more minutes, the results tend to speak for themselves; there’s a reason Walker Kessler and Zach Edey comparisons are being tossed around.

Even with limited burn, he’s good for one or two buckets, a block, and a possession-altering presence on both ends. It’s more than stats though; Clingan as a rim-running vertical threat is quite the change-up to Adama Sanogo’s low-gravity game. It’s quite the Rick Vaughn-esque change-up to throw, and yet another style of game the Huskies can play.

Hurley also noted in the offseason how Sanogo wore down at the end of last year, that he put too many miles on his big man. Thanks to Clingan’s production, the preseason Big East Player of the Year is playing three fewer minutes per game than he did in 2021-2022. But Sanogo is also averaging 2.9 fouls per game, the same as last year. Because of what Clingan offers, that suggests Sanogo is playing a little more freely on defense, without worrying about foul trouble. And if Sanogo picks up a couple of cheap early ones, Clingan’s production from the bench means Hurley won’t be forced to put his prized center back in too early.

“Yeah, you sleep a lot better and you have a lot more confidence as a coach when you feel like you have that quality up and down the roster,” Hurley said via Zoom during media day at Madison Square Garden in New York in October.

A well-rested Hurley is good for everyone.

The Dream is Still Alive

Dan Madigan and I have a now three-year bit where there’s one player on the roster we unequivocally ride for. Call it the Akok Akok fan club. This year, it’s Nahiem Alleyne, who, when firing on all cylinders, puts a fifth banner within reach. He’s shooting 34 percent from beyond the arc in the Big East, and 40 percent since the Seton Hall loss. The Huskies are 9-0 when he scores nine points or more. With defenses paying more and more attention to Sanogo and Jordan Hawkins, open looks will continue to be there for Alleyne. Even going 0-3 against St. John’s, he took what defenses gave him with midrange jumpers within the flow of the offense.

You have to admire the mental makeup of the kid, who through November-January was mired in an absurdly long cold streak. And it happened to coincide with the team rattling off 14 straight wins and climbing to as high as No. 2 in the country. He was truly the team’s only blemish in that stretch, and you know damn well he felt that pressure. That is so hard to do as a 20-year-old falling out of a rotation; to go out there in spot minutes knowing your role depends on one shot, one play. You have to thread the needle between not forcing it, but also not sitting back and being passive, because then you’re not productive.

But what did he do? He found his confidence on the other end of the court. He drew charges, got his hand in passing lanes, and made himself indispensable on defense. That kept him in the rotation long enough for the shots to eventually fall.

As an aside: watch any Husky highlights from January-February, and notice how teammates and coaches respond when Alleyne hits a 3-pointer or makes a play. They are STOKED. They knew how badly the underperforming Alleyne wanted to contribute, so to see glimpses of it brought true joy to everyone. That was the first sign that this team has the chemistry for a long run in March.

More Than Just #Vibes

The Hassan Diarra we saw against Seton Hall (four points, four assists, no turnovers) is the chaotic good the Huskies need. If he can disrupt opposing guards, spell Tristen Newton when he’s in a funk, and serve as an extra ball handler in pressing situations, then he is invaluable.

It’s unfair to call him just a #vibes guy, but can you imagine the energy Diarra will bring to Madison Square Garden, in front of those crowds? He’s going to swing at least one run in UConn’s direction, and for a team that thrives on Kill Shots, that’s all you really need from a backup point guard.

We’ll See You Again

A quick little note on Samson Johnson, who just can’t seem to catch a break. The broken foot sidelined the forward for the most critical stretch of the year. He remains a talented and intriguing piece for next year, but there’s too much rust and inexperience to rely on him in March. It stinks, because his skillset and size is perhaps the one missing ingredient needed from the bench unit. Hopefully, he’s ready for the boatload of minutes coming his way next year.