UConn was really good last year. (Not good enough to beat Xavier, but still pretty good.) They won 13 in Big East conference play, dropped a two point game to Marquette in the conference tournament, then bludgeoned their way through the NCAA tournament. Their closest game was a 13 point Final Four beatdown of Miami. They beat Gonzaga by 28 and made the national championship game an exercise in controlled boredom. They were really, really good.
But not all is rosy in Storrs this year. The Huskies aren’t bringing that entire team back. They have a talented freshman class incoming, but their returning players didn’t all log significant time. They have Donovan Clingan coming back, but he’s injured already. Dan Hurley is coming back, but he’s a man baby who can cost his team a game as surely as he can captain a drive to win the national championship.
Last year, Hurley had the team playing at a slow-ish pace and moving the ball quickly in their offensive end. The Huskies shot the ball well, but hammered the offensive glass to make up for not being elite. Where they were elite was on defense. UConn was seventh in the nation on defense and essentially choked off opponents from making any shots. Well, except Xavier, who beat them twice.
How does the NCAA tournament MVP grab you? Adama Sanogo is gone. With him goes the heart of that imposing defense. Sanogo blocked a lot of shots last season, but he also had active hands and hoovered defensive rebounds. Jordan Hawkins is also gone for the NBA. He averaged 16.2 points per game. Also gone is human Swiss Army knife and horrible three point shooter Andre Jackson. Jackson did a little bit of everything for the Huskies last season, from guarding five spots to occasionally bringing the ball up the court. He’s a big miss. Three point shooting ace Joey Calcaterra has left for the D League. Naheim Allenye didn’t put up big numbers, but he appeared in every game for UConn before moving to St. John’s for this season.
The big one, in a lot of ways, is Donovan Clingan. A lot of people are picking Clingan to make a big jump this season, but he’s currently down with a foot injury. Big men and foot injuries aren’t a good mix, and that has deprived us a of a chance to watch Zach Freemantle call Clingan “b****made” again this year. (Still a family friendly site.) If Clingan comes back he’s a massive defensive piece in the middle. He blocked almost 15% of opponent’s shots when he was on the floor last season. That’s ludicrous.
Definitely back is Tristen Newton. He’s a capable point man who kept the offense ticking last season. He can finish from the line and shoot the three reasonably well. He’s a good, solid piece for a team that needs stability. He’s joined by Alex Karaban, who was UConn’s most efficient scorer as a freshman. Karaban can score from all three levels, but struggles on the glass for someone his size. Hassan Diarra finishes off the returnees. He feels like he’s been kicking around college basketball forever though he’s only a senior, and he still brings most of his value on the defensive end.
Cam Spencer comes over from Rutgers for his fifth season of college ball. Spencer is a deadeye three point shooter and nails from the line, but struggles immensely in the mid range and at the rim. He’s a 6-4 guard who is excellent on the defensive end. He’s the main transfer name coming in.
After him comes a great recruiting class. Stephon Castle is the main piece of that class and he’s likely a one and done swing man. He’s just flat out good all over the court and will step into Andre Jackson’s role, just with better shooting numbers. Solomon Ball, Jaylin Stewart, and Jayden Ross make up the rest of the class. They are all talented and Ball and Ross join Castle as top 100 recruits.
Well, it has to be a step back. That’s not as bad as it sounds, as the only way for it not to be a step back would be if the Huskies were national title favorites again. They aren’t. That said, this isn’t a bad team at all. There’s a reason they are ranked in the top five. Clingan is back in practice and if he’s healthy, this team is very good. Even if he’s not, there’s enough here to make some real noise.