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2022-23 Big East Men’s Basketball Summer Check-In: Connecticut Huskies

I think it’s safe to say that this coming season will be Dan Hurley’s biggest test since arriving at UConn.

Connecticut v Villanova
Can UConn put enough around Adama Sanogo to get to the NCAA tournament in March?
Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

Team: Connecticut Huskies

2021-22 Record: 23-10, 13-6 Big East

2021-22 Big East Finish: Third, one game in front of Creighton in the standings.

Final 2021-22 Ranking: #22

Postseason? After losing 63-60 to Villanova in the Big East semifinals, the Huskies gave up a 10-0 run late in the first half to #12 seed New Mexico State, closed the gap, tied the game at 58 with two minutes to play, and then lost to the Aggies, 70-63.

Key Departures: UConn loses four of their top five scorers. That’s bad! R.J. Cole is the most notable one and not just because he was the leading scorer at 15.8 per game and also not just because he led the team with 4.1 assists a night, either. Cole was the only Husky to start in all 33 games last season and one of just four to play in all 33, so the loss of his steadying influence is almost more impactful that his actual counting stats. Connecticut also loses another double digit scorer in Tyrese Martin. the 6’6” guard from Pennsylvania was a major contributor on each of the last two UConn teams, culminating in a stat line of 13.6 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game this past year.

The other two guys in that top five scoring group are Isaiah Whaley and Tyler Polley. There’s a big drop off from Martin’s 13.6 points per game to Whaley’s 7.7, but #4 on the team is still #4 on the team. Whaley also added 4.8 rebounds per game while starting in 31 of his 32 appearances, and you can’t underestimate the value of his 2.2 blocks per contest. Polley, a Noted Marquette Killer, was one of the group of guys to play in every game in 2021-22 and added 7.6 points along with 1.6 rebounds in 20.2 minutes a night.

We should make sure to mention Jalen Gaffney and Akok Akok here. Gaffney also appeared in all 33 games, all off the bench. There’s an argument to be made that he’s not that much of a loss as his minutes declined as the season went along, but 12.3 minutes per game can’t be ignored as far as a contribution goes. Things were even more pronounced for Akok, who went from double digit minutes at the start of the season to starting in a six game stretch in December to playing just three times in UConn’s final 13 contests. Still, 23 appearances, 13.9 minutes per game, even if his 3.4 points and 3.2 rebounds weren’t a big contribution.

Key Returners: I would imagine that any UConn fan’s discussion of the upcoming season would pretty quickly involve the phrase “well, at least we have Adama Sanogo” or something similar. The 6’9” big man is the leading returning scorer at 14.8 points per game last season and he led the team in rebounding at 8.8 a night as well as nearly two blocks per game. Anyone who doesn’t vote him onto their preseason all-Big East team should probably be fired, and there’s a real argument for him as Preseason Player of the Year.

Officially, we have to say that Andre Jackson did not start every game last season because he did not. He did, however, appear in every game and the only time he didn’t start is when super senior Tyler Polley got the nod on Senior Night. The hyper-athletic wing averaged just 6.8 points per game, but he did add 6.8 rebounds to the proceedings and led the team in steals at 1.2/game.

Jordan Hawkins is the last name we have to mention here, and that should tip you off to a pretty strong degree about where UConn might be headed in 2022-23. Hawkins had a perfectly acceptable freshman year for the Huskies, averaging 5.8 points and 2.0 rebounds per game in 14.7 minutes. He appeared in 27 games and even started four times when Tyrese Martin was unavailable. The former top 75 prospect from Georgetown’s backyard did miss UConn’s final four games of the season, but it was due to a concussion, so I would imagine he’ll be totally fine to go when November rolls around.

Key Additions: It would appear that the Huskies enjoyed their time on the inbound side of the transfer portal this offseason. There are, count ‘em, four new transfers on the roster.

The most notable one in terms of points scored last year is Tristen Newton, a 6’5” guard who played the three previous seasons at East Carolina. 17.7 points per game is pretty darn good no matter what conference you’re in, and Newton added 4.8 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game as well this past season. Given the departure of R.J. Cole, it’s probably very useful that Newton had the #24 assist rate in the country last season while playing for the Pirates.

Joey Calcaterra is probably the second most interesting transfer, as he has played four seasons of college hoops already so this will be his final year. His first four campaigns were all at San Diego, where he averaged 8.2 points, 2.3 rebounds, and 1.4 assists in 105 appearances for the Toreros. He was a double digit scorer in his sophomore and junior seasons, averaging 11.4 and 13.3 points respectively, but that dropped back to 8.5 a night in 2021-22. The 6’3” guard from California is a career 35.7% three-point shooter, so you’d think he should be able to chip in that way at least.

I’m pretty sure Nahiem Alleyne beats out Hassan Diarra in the intrigue department for UConn. Alleyne is a 6’4” guard who played the last three years at Virginia Tech. In 90 appearances with 84 starts, the Georgia native averaged 9.7 points, 2.5 rebounds, and 1.5 assists. He’s doing better than Calcaterra in the shooting department at 38.7% from long range, so that’s pretty good. Diarra is also a guard, standing in at 6’2” tall. Somehow he went from Queens to College Station for his first two years of college hoops, and for whatever reason, he doesn’t want to hang out with Buzz Williams any more. 6.1 points, 1.9 rebounds, and 1.5 assists per game isn’t much to speak of, but Diarra never averaged more than 20 minutes a game in either of his two seasons, so whatcha gonna do, y’know?

The Huskies have one true freshman on the roster and one redshirt freshman who only joined the squad mid-season last year. The redshirt is Alex Karaban, a 6’8”, 210 pound forward from Massachusetts by way of IMG Academy. After 247 Sports ported him over to the Class of 2021 thanks to his early enrollment, he was the #95 prospect in the country according to their Composite system. Donovan Clingan is the only Class of 2022 prospect added to the roster this offseason, and I’m not quite sure if the coaching staff expects him to play. The 7’2”, 265 pound in-state big man comes in as the #50 prospect in the Class of 2022. That’s generally enough to earn you minutes no matter where you go, but if Adama Sanogo is your starting center, then that’s going to force the coaches to figure a thing or three out along the way.

Coach: Dan Hurley, entering his fifth season at Connecticut and 13th overall as a Division 1 head coach. He has a record of 73-47 with the Huskies and 224-152 overall.

Outlook: 2022-23 should give us a good picture of exactly what kind of a coach Dan Hurley is.

To be clear, I think he’s a pretty good coach, easily top half of the Big East without a doubt. But if UConn wants to be back in the NCAA tournament for the third straight season — their first three tournament streak since 2004-06, by the way — it’s going to take a notable job from the guy in the big chair to pull everything together and keep it there.

I don’t want to make it sound like Connecticut’s going to be a bad basketball team otherwise. Any Big East team with Adama Sanogo and Andre Jackson on it is going to be competitive at the very worst. The fact of the matter is that those two guys are two of the three known notable contributor quantities returning from last year’s squad, and that is it. That is not the kind of situation you want to find yourself in. To put it another way: Last year, KenPom marked UConn with the 28th most minutes continuity from the previous season at 73.9%. That got them third place in the Big East and a #5 seed in the NCAA tournament. This coming season? The Huskies will max out at 34.3%..... and that would have ranked #275 in the country this past season.

It’s not like you can’t be successful reassembling your roster on the fly. Last season, Texas Tech (#3 seed), Arkansas (#4 seed), and LSU (#6 seed), amongst others, were all worse than that in the continuity department, and they were all just as if not actually more successful than UConn was with all that continuity. It can be done.

But it hasn’t been done by Dan Hurley. Not at UConn, where his lowest continuity number has been 46.4% and that had more to do with James Bouknight missing time than anything else. Not at Rhode Island, where he went 14-18 overall and 5-11 in the Atlantic 10 when he had just 28.6% continuity in 2013-14 and 8-21 in his first season when the continuity was 37.3%. Not even at Wagner, where he was north of 50% both seasons.

The upside to what Hurley has done with his transfers this year is that it certainly looks like he’s brought in guys who can be placed around Sanogo and Jackson to make a coherent team. It’s probably going to require Tristen Newton to step in as a game altering point guard to pick up the slack from R.J. Cole’s departure, or at the very least literally anyone turning into a distributing guard. That’s the only notable need on the roster, really, as Jackson and Sanogo will get you to a good place scoring and rebounding. You’d like to see options develop past them on offense, as that’s what worked well for the Huskies last year, but every team is different, y’know?

I am curious to see how Alex Karaban and Donovan Clingan fit in. If either of them can be more of a stretch four while still defending the rim well enough, that’s going to go a long way towards making things work for UConn. Halving UConn’s effectiveness at the rim with the departure of Isaiah Whaley isn’t a particularly good sign for a team that depended on being elite at two-point shooting defense and blocking shots in particular to get it don on that end. If Karaban and Clingan can contribute right out of the gate — and given Karaban’s time in practice since January and Clingan’s natural size, I would think it’s possible — that could be a big bonus for UConn’s postseason hopes.