After earning the program’s first No. 1 ranking in 15 years, UConn men’s basketball will immediately face the tough task of welcoming No. 18 Creighton to Gampel Pavilion. The Huskies have struggled with the Bluejays historically since the two became Big East Conference members, and a win for Creighton in Storrs Wednesday night would give Greg McDermott’s squad a share of first place in the Big East alongside the Huskies and Seton Hall.
Even without big man Donovan Clingan due to injury, Dan Hurley’s squad has real momentum at the moment. The Huskies have won five straight since their road loss to Seton Hall and head into this Creighton game as the nation's top team. UConn will be playing in front of what should be a raucous Gampel crowd thanks to students returning from winter break and the promise of two-dollar Miller Lites.
But the Bluejays are a different caliber team than the likes of what the Huskies have played without Clingan so far, and this Creighton squad could arguably be the team’s toughest game of the year so far, given the circumstances.
Radio: UConn Sports Network
Odds: UConn -5.5, over/under 142.5
KenPom Predicted Score: UConn 74, Creighton 69 | 68 percent win probability
UConn and Creighton have met seven times total in a series that dates back to the Huskies’ joining the new Big East in the 2020-21 season, with the Bluejays holding a 6-1 advantage. UConn did not defeat Creighton until Jan. 7 last season, when Adama Sanogo had 26 points to help the Huskies to victory.
What to Watch for
Creighton has size all over and it's no more evident than down low, where big man Ryan Kalkbrenner anchors the defense and more than holds his own offensively. The 7-foot-1 senior has given UConn problems all throughout his career and comes to Storrs playing some of his best basketball. The big man is averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds per game in his last three games and just posted an impressive 18-point, nine-rebound, four-block performance against a St. John’s squad with a quality big of their own in Joel Soriano.
Before the start of the season, Kalkbrenner versus Donovan Clingan was widely expected to be one of the best big-men battles of the season. With Clingan likely out again, that showdown will have to wait. If UConn’s star center does return from his five-game absence due to a foot injury, he will almost certainly only play a handful of minutes.
Dan Hurley says Donovan Clingan's availability tomorrow is a "coin flip."— Joe Arruda (@joearruda9) January 16, 2024
"This is the best he's been in terms of the physical... If not tomorrow I would think worst case scenario, unless there's a major setback, he's in for the weekend."
With Clingan likely out, that leaves Samson Johnson as the only Husky truly capable of individually trying to contain Kalkbrenner. Johnson has struggled mightily the past few games, playing just 12 minutes against Georgetown but still accumulating three fouls. He will need to use his length and athleticism to bother Kalkbrenner around the rim and try to keep him off the glass. In reality, UConn will likely need a team effort to win the battle of the boards, something the Huskies certainly can do as Tristen Newton, Stephon Castle, and Alex Karaban all have posted games with nine or more boards this season.
Get Tristen back on track
It’s hard to say someone is struggling when they nearly posted a triple-double in their last game, but Tristen Newton’s offensive game has been up and down since the New Year. Newton scored nine points and added eight assists and seven rebounds in Sunday's win over Georgetown, but was 0-6 from the 3-point line. In his last four games, Newton is shooting just 4-23 (17.3 percent) from deep.
Fortunately for UConn, Newton is not just able to help out offensively by scoring. He remains a strong rebounder and has been a key distributor in this offense — in that same four-game stretch, he has racked up 31 assists. Newton’s reputation as a stat stuffer demands that he is still respected from the perimeter and has allowed him to attack the rim and draw contact, where has attempted 36 free throws in six Big East conference games and shoots 79.2 percent from the stripe.
Newton will likely be guarded by Creighton’s Trey Alexander, a stingy perimeter defender who has the size (6-foot-4) and skill to keep Newton in front of him. Another stellar performance from Newton could take the Huskies to another level offensively and reignite his campaign for All-American honors.
Threes will be key
Expect 3-pointers early and often from both squads Wednesday night. After a rocky start from the perimeter this season, UConn has been lights out from deep, shooting a Big East-best 39.6 percent from three in the conference, largely thanks to Cam Spencer (46.8 percent this season) and Alex Karaban (41.2 percent). About 42.5 percent of the Huskies’ field goal attempts are 3-pointers, a number very similar to last year's title squad’s.
Meanwhile, there’s hardly anyone that relies on the three-ball like Creighton. The Bluejays’ 3-point attempts make up 48.8 percent of their field goal attempts, the seventh-highest total in the country. Creighton shoots 36 percent from deep on the year and has five players with 40 or more 3-point attempts. Baylor Scheierman, a former South Dakota State transfer in his second season at Creighton, shoots 36.9 percent on over 140 attempts, but forwards Mason Miller (50 percent) and Isaac Traudt (43.2 percent) can also shoot it. Alexander needs to be respected as well, and even Kalkbrenner has stretched the floor at times. While the big man is shooting just 27.6 percent, it’s possible he may look to take a few looks early to keep Johnson guessing and out of the center of the paint on defense.
Battle of the benches
The Bluejays’ bench is more or less nonexistent. Creighton ranks amongst the bottom 20 schools in Division I in bench minutes, meaning McDermott will lean on the likes of Alexander, Scheierman, and Kalkbrenner for the entire 40 minutes — the trio scored nearly two-thirds of Creighton’s 66 points in their recent one-point win over St. John’s. If UConn can keep any of that trio in check or get them into foul trouble, the Huskies could be in the driver’s seat for their second-ever win over the Bluejays.
For UConn, Cligan’s absence has forced Dan Hurley to go deeper into the bench with largely positive results. Hassan Diarra has become a spark plug off the bench on both ends and was a key factor in each of the Huskies’ last three wins. Jaylin Stewart has seen an uptick in minutes as the team’s small-ball center and has shown an improvement in guarding bigger forwards and centers in the low post. With Creighton’s unique threats in Scheierman and Kalkbrenner, the ability to mix in fresh legs and different looks on both ends gives the Huskies an advantage over a Bluejays squad that refuses to go as deep.