Roundtable: UConn men’s basketball’s biggest strengths and weaknesses heading into the Phil Knight Invitational

UConn men’s basketball is off to another hot start under Dan Hurley, with the Huskies heading into Thanksgiving with a 5-0 record and a No. 20 ranking both in the polls and in KenPom. While the Huskies haven’t played anything close to stiff competition yet with no opponents inside the top 200 in KenPom, UConn has done just about everything you could ask of a quality team so far by winning every game by basically 30 or more points, aside from a 20-point win over Buffalo.

The Huskies’ schedule gets much more difficult quickly, as UConn heads out west to Portland, Oregon to take on the Oregon Ducks in their first game of the Phil Knight Invitational. Even though the game will be played at the Moda Center in Portland — technically a neutral site — the crowd will likely be largely in favor of the Ducks, creating a raucous environment for the first game away from home all season. After that, the Huskies will take on either Alabama or Michigan State and one of North Carolina, Portland, Iowa State or Villanova.

Once UConn gets home, the Huskies have two more big non-conference tests against Oklahoma State (No. 40 in KenPom) at Gampel Pavilion and on the road against Florida (No. 36). So while UConn looks great so far, we should have a better grasp on the true talent level of this team over the course of the next two weeks. With one of the biggest stretches of the season coming up, we decided to break down some of the Huskies’ biggest strengths and weaknesses so far this season.

Strengths

Patrick Martin: Frontcourt depth. Imagine Defending Adama Sanogo and his Endless array of pump fakes and physicality, he heads to the bench for a breather, and in steps a 7-foot-2 mobile Behemoth like Donovan Clingan. The Bristol native has exceeded expectations to start his UConn career, averaging 9.6 points and 6.4 rebounds per game in just over 15 minutes.

Now, there’s no break for defenses when the preseason Big East Player of the Year is on the bench. The Huskies didn’t have that last year. It not only puts strain on defenses, but it lightens Sanogo’s load; he’s only averaging 23 minutes per game in the young season. That saved mileage is going to come in Handy in February and March.

It’s not just Clinga Backing up Sanogo. Alex Karaban is an impact player from the jump. Samson Johnson was getting all sorts of preseason hype and started the season opener for a reason. They all bring different skill sets to the table, too. Karaban is an adept connector and floor spacer, Clingan is a safety valve and burgeoning rim protector, and Johnson as a rim runner. The jury’s out if the freshman can be as effective against better competition. But for now, if Sanogo picks up two quick fouls, the frontcourt doesn’t become a net negative.

Shawn McGrath: The frontcourt has been a great surprise. Aside from Sanogo, UConn arrived this year with a lot of question marks. Johnson did not look great as a freshman. Karaban is more of a stretch four than a post player. Clingan was playing in the CIAC last year and was probably seven inches, or more, taller than his competition. But I think that the Huskies can also count its overall defense as a strength.

The frontcourt is a big contributor to that, as Clingan already has 13 blocks, while Sanogo has six thefts and a trio of blocks. But guards have done their fair share too, as Hassan Diarra has seven steals, while Tristen Newton has also added six.

UConn has also drastically out-rebounded their opponents, doing so by more than 12 per game. That adds up to the 18th-most efficient defense, according to KenPom, surrendering just 90.6 points per 100 adjusted possessions. The Huskies’ effective field goal percentage against is 13th in the country and are also in the top 50 nationally in Offensive rebound percentage (30th), block percentage (32nd) and turnover percentage (36th).

UConn has faced one top-200 offense (No. 197 Boston University) and their opponents’ average rank is below No. 250, but those are some impressive numbers and despite the loss of Isaiah Whaley, this year’s unit might be better than the No. 43 ranking from last season.

Dan Madigan: I didn’t think the defense would be as good as it has been, especially after losing Whaley and Tyrese Martin. Right now, the Huskies rank 18th in KenPom in adjusted defensive efficiency — a mark that would be Dan Hurley’s best at UConn.

Some of that is probably due to the level of competition, but UConn does have some solid defensive pieces in Clingan and Sanogo, who have continued to move well and alter shots while hauling in rebounds and limiting extra possessions. The backcourt defense isn’t as solid, but Andre Jackson remains a solid Perimeter defender and Diarra has the length and toughness to be an Absolute Nightmare for opposing guards. UConn may not be an elite shot-blocking team like in past years, but can provide more perimeter pressure and are more versatile than last season, allowing them to switch on every screen. That may be a major advantage as the Huskies take on tougher competition over the next few weeks.

Weaknesses

Martin: Turnovers. UConn had nine second-half turnovers against Delaware State. Diarra brings defense and energy, but he has 13 turnovers in five games, although that comes with 23 assists. Joey Calcaterra has more turnovers (11) than assists (10). Andre Jackson has a reputation of throwing the ball over the place. Jordan Hawkins’ handle is under construction. I shudder thinking about UConn’s backcourt handling St. John’s or Marquette presses. Nothing derails a run like a silly turnover. Who settles the team down when they’re forced to play at an uncomfortable pace?

McGrath: I’m not convinced on the shooting. UConn has been elite on 2-pointers this year, shooting above 60.0 percent, which is in the top 10, and the offense is in the top 30 according to KenPom’s efficiency rankings, but I have a feeling scoring consistently from the outside is going to be difficult for the Huskies against top teams.

Even against teams less long and athletic, UConn’s 3-point percentage is 98th in the country. Respectable, for sure, but Hurley’s team has had a severe length and athleticism advantage thus far, making it easy to get open shots. That percentage will go down against the likes of Creighton and Villanova.

Five players are averaging more than three attempts beyond the arc per game: Nahiem Alleyne, Alex Karaban, Jordan Hawkins, Tristen Newton and Joey Calcaterra. Calcaterra is shooting an unsustainable 52.9 percent, while Hawkins (38.1 percent) and Karaban (36.4 percent) have been solid. Alleyne (30.4 percent) and Newton (23.5 percent) have not been able to knock down the outside shot consistently. Shooting is Calcaterra’s and Karaban’s biggest asset and if teams with better defenses zero in on them or they go cold, then it will be difficult to stay in games, particularly against good 3-point shooting teams.

Madigan: We still don’t know what UConn will do against lineups with size at both center and forward without Samson Johnson, who is still likely out until conference play. Karaban has been a key contributor offensively and held his own on defense, but the freshman has rarely had to guard anyone bigger than him so far this year. Clingan has been a Revelation but did struggle early on with some length and size that UNC Wilmington offered.

With Johnson out, is it possible we will see Clingan and Sanogo together to provide help on the boards? Or will Hurley rely on his bigger guards like Newton and Jackson to double bigger forwards in the post? The defense has been good so far, so it might not be worth rocking the boat, but it will be interesting to see how Hurley handles larger frontcourts as the level of competition increases.

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