MBB Preview: Bouknight-less Huskies hosting St. John’s

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The UConn men’s basketball team will play its first home game in nearly three weeks when it hosts St. John’s on Monday at 2:30 p.m. The game will be nationally televised on Fox, UConn’s first game there this season.

The No. 25 ranked Huskies (7-1, 4-1 Big East) enter the game on a hot streak having won their last four games, including all three on their midwest road trip. But they will be playing their third game in a row without their top scorer James Bouknight, who had surgery last week for bone spurs in his hyperextended elbow. Head coach Dan Hurley said the team will certainly miss Bouknight against a team like St. John’s (7-7, 2-6 Big East), which forces individual players to create big plays, something that Bouknight thrives at doing.

“I think losing James in a game like this where the court’s going to be open and you’re going to have space and things are going to be denied and there’s driving lanes available to go make plays, not having far and away your best attacking shot creator and playmaker hurts,” Hurley said. “Because you need playmakers against this type of a defense.”

Hurley said he expects Bouknight to miss the next two weeks or so, but he’s doing well with his rehab so far and he’s antsy to get back on the court. As it stands right now, the Huskies will need another solid team performance to keep their winning streak intact. Hurley said the focus in practice this week was preparing for the pressing defense of the Red Storm, which forces over 10 steals per game.

“They play so hard, and they’re so disruptive with their defense and the way they attack your ball,” Hurley said. “We’re just really focusing on our ball security and our sharpness, because if you’re not sharp with the ball, if you float passes, … if you’re soft, they prey on you.”

Unlike UConn, St. John’s is going through a rough patch, losing three of its last four games. The only win in that span came against Butler on Jan. 12. Other than that, dating back to the start of 2021, the Red Storm have lost to Xavier, Creighton and most recently on Saturday, Marquette in a tight 73-71 game that they lost in the last minute.

DePaul’s Javon Freeman-Liberty (4) loses control of the ball as Connecticut’s Josh Carlton (25) defends during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Monday, Jan. 11, 2021, in Chicago. Photo by Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

St. John’s best player this season has been sophomore Julian Champagnie, who leads the team with 20.7 points and 7.3 rebounds per game and is certainly in the conversation for Big East Player of the Year. Hurley is expecting him to be a challenge to contain.

“[He’s a] matchup nightmare,” Hurley said. “Scoring it at all three levels. If you put your four on him, he’s going to face him up and take him away from the basket into the deep water. If you try to play smaller on him, he can go in the post … He’s just really skilled. Beautiful natural scoring instincts and one of the better players in the league.”

He said he anticipates Isaiah Whaley, Tyrese Martin, Tyler Polley and Brendan Adams all getting the opportunity to guard Champagnie.

St. John’s has a disruptive defense, but it thrives on its opponent making mistakes. So Hurley said there will be opportunities for easy baskets if the team is sharp with the ball and limits bad decisions. There will be a clash of playing styles on Monday afternoon. St. John’s will want to play a fast-paced game, where they can create a lot of points in transition, whereas UConn — especially with no Bouknight — will want to slow down the pace and really make St. John’s work for everything on both ends of the floor. 

The key for the Huskies in the game will be taking care of the ball on offense and making the Red Storm earn their baskets on defense.

“If you’re really really sharp and on it, there will be opportunities there. If you’re not sharp, if you’re a tick off, it could be a really long afternoon,” Hurley said.

This will be the 63rd all-time meeting between these two longtime rivals, but the first since Feb. 6, 2013, which St. John’s won 71-65. The Red Storm has the edge in the all-time series 34-28.

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