"My rule was I wouldn't recruit a kid if he had grass in front of his house.
That's not my world. My world was a cracked sidewalk." —Al McGuire

Thursday, October 19, 2023

Connecticut Preview, 2023-24

Connecticut Huskies

February 17, 2024 at Gampel Pavilion and March 6, 2024 at Fiserv Forum

Head Coach: Dan Hurley (104-55 at UConn, 255-160 overall)

Three-Year NET Average: 19.7

Three-Year kenpom Average: 14.7

Projected 2023-24 T-Rank: 3

Projected Starters: PG Tristen Newton (6'5" 5th), SG Cam Spencer (6'4" 5th), SF Stephon Castle (6'6" Fr), PF Alex Karaban (6'8" So), C Donovan Clingan (7'2" So)

Donovan Clingan demands defensive attention

Photo from UConn Athletics

The Huskies completed one of the most dominant NCAA Tournament title runs in recent history, winning all 6 games by double-digit margins. Adding that to their dominant non-conference play, they went 17-0 against opponents outside the Big East, winning all seventeen by double-digits and averaging a 24.2 margin of victory. Only one non-conference opponent ever held a second half lead on the Huskies, when St. Mary's had a 38-37 lead with sixteen minutes to play in the NCAA Tournament right before a 14-2 UConn run put the game out of reach. That makes it hard to explain their Big East performance, where they finished fourth in the league including losses to non-tournament teams in St. John's and Seton Hall and fell in the Big East semifinals (though in arguably the most competitive game of the tournament to champs Marquette). Aside from a 2-6 stretch from December 31 through January 25, however, the Huskies were simply awesome. The National Championship was followed by significant roster change, with starters Jordan Hawkins, Andre Jackson, and Adama Sanogo all leaving for the NBA while sixth man Naheim Alleyne transferred to St. John's and seventh man Joey Calcaterra graduated.

While not the flashiest name on the roster, the most important is likely point guard Tristen Newton. The guard was largely a complimentary piece last year as he shared ballhandling duties with Jackson and deferred scoring to Hawkins and Sanogo. This year, he will need to create more for himself and others, which he did effectively at East Carolina and showed flashes of last year, including a triple-double in UConn's 87-72 win over Marquette, the only double-digit loss the Big East champs suffered all year. He's joined in the back court by Rutgers transfer Cam Spencer, who is a sharpshooter (40.8 career 3PFG%) that can replace some of the offensive punch lost to the NBA. Freshman Stephon Castle is a top-10 recruit with good length and athleticism for a guard, but will likely spend most of his time on the wing at UConn due to their roster makeup. He has the tools to be great player with one-and-done potential, but is an inconsistent shooter and not yet a finished product on the defensive end. Alex Karaban had an exceptional freshman year, shooting the ball well and playing a role as he developed in the system but will likely need to be stronger physically and on the glass to compete every night in the Big East. The name everyone will talk about though is Donovan Clingan. The young man passed on the NBA Draft where he likely would've been a first round pick to return to UConn. He averaged an efficient 6.9 ppg/5.6 rpg, but his per-40 minutes numbers were amazing, projecting out to 21.1/17.1. He has already garnered some dark horse national player of the year hype and will be expected to dominate, though it is a different challenge performing at that level for 13.1 mpg behind an all-conference big in Sanogo compared to being the man every night with no proven backup. That may be the real challenge for UConn. Behind their starters, they have guard Hassan Diarra, who was miserable on the offensive end (85.0 ORtg, 39.9 career 2PFG%, 28.5 career 3PFG%), unproven freshmen Solomon Ball and Jayden Ross, and junior big Samson Johnson, who has more DNPs than appearances in two years and has only played double-digit minutes twice, both against sub-300 opponents.

UConn's offensive playbook is exceptionally deep. They run a ton of set plays, with built in counters and actions to react to what the defense does. They typically move the ball well with multiple ball-handlers. Last year was a bit of an anomaly, as the Huskies took the highest percentage of their shots from three of Hurley's career. They are always great on the offensive glass, and having multiple shooters allowed UConn to spread the floor, take shots from beyond the arc, and count on Sanogo and Clingan to clean up the mess down low. Despite the departure of Hawkins and Joey Calcaterra, expect Spencer and Karaban to keep the threes coming, though as a team they might not be quite as effective as they were. Defensively, UConn excels at chasing teams off the line and limiting three point attempts. This forces teams to attack inside, where the Huskies funnel the ball to the middle and use their bigs to erase shots at the rim. Last year, the Huskies ranked in the top-31 in three of the four defensive factors (eFG%, turnover rate, rebounding) through the first 14 games of the year, which allowed them to flourish despite a miserable free throw rate in the same period (#311). Those fouls caught up with them in Big East play while at the same time their shooting fortune declined on both ends. Poor man defense and too many fouls led to that 2-6 skid that ultimately doomed any Big East title hopes. By the tourney, though, they stopped fouling and were back to playing at an elite level on both ends of the floor.

On paper, UConn has an excellent starting five. Multiple potential NBA talents mixed with proven experienced high-major players in the back court. On their night, this is a team that will continue to look dominant and roll up lopsided scores against a number of opponents. But there are definitely concerns once you get past that five, particularly when you consider Hurley has never had a team finish in the top-220 nationally in defensive free throw rate. His defenses are physical and foul a lot, which is problematic when the bench isn't deep. While Clingan had gaudy per-40 numbers, he also averaged 5.7 fouls per-40 and he had 7 occasions where he was tagged for 3+ fouls in fewer than 15 minutes of play. You simply can't have your NPOY candidate in foul trouble that often if there's no bench depth behind you and expect to contend for a title. This should be a good team once they sort out their bench, but expect some growing pains as players adjust to new roles and a ceiling that is significantly lower than last year.

One Man's Opinion: I'm sure I'll get some pushback for picking Connecticut 4th in the Big East, but that's where I see them landing. The starting five is great, but their lack of depth is a real concern and even last year when they won the National Championship they only finished 4th in the Big East. Hurley's teams simply play too aggressively to expect a team with this little depth to contend for a league title. While they are coming off a national title, losing 5 of the top 7 in their rotation reminds me of 2018 Villanova losing 4 of their top 6 or 2019 Virginia losing 4 of their top 7. Both national title winners finished first in kenpom, like UConn, lost 3 or more players to the NBA, like UConn, and were predicted to be a top-5 team the next year, like UConn. Both also landed outside the top-25 in kenpom when the year was over. If Spencer and Castle can fit in, I think they are a very dangerous team once the rotations shorten in March. But in a 20-game Big East slate when depth matters, fouls matter, and one injury can cost you multiple games, I just don't see this as a team reaching the heights some predict. Considering the news about Clingan's foot injury, this prediction might be too optimistic as opposed to too pessimistic. Good team, yes, tourney team, most likely, but top-10 Big East title contender? Not so much.

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