After a too-close-for-comfort XL Center win over the Maryland-Eastern Shore Hawks, the No. 17 UConn men’s basketball team is back on campus at Gampel Pavilion on Saturday, as it is slated to take on the Grambling State Tigers.
UConn (7-1, 0-0 Big East) has been successful thus far this year in their non-conference stretch of games, but have faltered somewhat as of late. After a big win against ranked Auburn, the Huskies lost a close four-point game to Michigan State in the Battle 4 Atlantis semifinal and squeaked by with single-digit wins over both VCU and UMES, teams ranked No. 93 and No. 347 in the nation, according to the Kenpom ratings, respectively. They hope to build some momentum in this game before taking on a tough West Virginia team on the road next week.
The injury bug seems to have hit Connecticut, as guard Tyrese Martin missed Tuesday’s game with a wrist sprain and an avulsion fracture and will be out for the next two to four weeks. This is a big loss for the team, as Martin averaged 12.9 points and 7.7 rebounds in his first seven games this season.
“Tyrese is a heart-and-soul guy. There’s four indispensable guys for us here … Tyrese and Isaiah [Whaley] are tone setters with the force and the physicality and the athleticism,” coach Dan Hurley said on Tuesday. He added, “That’s a problem, but I’ve talked about our program depth for a long time, so there’s no excuses for any of these games moving forward.”
The verdict is still not out on sophomore big man Adama Sanogo’s injury, who left the game against UMES with a lower abdominal issue, though it is expected he will return this upcoming game or next. The Big East Player of the Week is the team’s second leading scorer and is an absolutely dominating presence in the paint.
With two injured starters, more players will have to step up for the Huskies. Enter guard RJ Cole, the hero of Tuesday’s game. The graduate student has put up 24 or more points in three of the team’s last four games and really made an impact in Martin’s absence on Tuesday, going 8-for-16 with five rebounds, four assists, a block and a steal. But he can’t be the only one to take charge through adversity.
So who else can help get the job done? In Martin’s place this next game, it will likely be freshman Jordan Hawkins again, who struggled early but showed flashes in his first collegiate start. The sharpshooter is definitely inconsistent — as most rookies are — but is gaining valuable experience with every game. Big man Akok Akok should see more minutes if Sanogo is out or limited, as he barely saw the court Tuesday due to Maryland-Eastern Shore’s small-ball lineup. Junior Jalen Gaffney, a rare bright spot on Tuesday, should continue to bring his energy from off the bench. Last game, he had a team-best plus-minus of 15.
Lastly, the injuries could mean we see the emergence of more freshmen. Since bringing in the tenth best recruiting class this year, the only player who has seen quality minutes thus far is Hawkins. Hurley has been set on his “starting nine” guys, leaving Samson Johnson, Rahsool Diggins and Richie Springs on the bench. With four-star players waiting in the wings for their chance to play, it will be interesting to see how Hurley intends on using them while Martin and possibly Sanogo are out.
Grambling State (2-5, 0-0 SWAC) has had a rough start to the season. While they’ve faced some good competition in Iowa State and Texas Tech, they’ve dropped some blowout stinkers to teams like Grand Canyon and New Mexico. The HBCU’s two wins came last week against Louisiana Christian and Morgan State. The Tigers currently rank No. 329 in the country out of 358 Division I programs in the Kenpom ratings.
The Tigers are led this year by a three-headed attack in the form of Danya Kingsby, Cameron Christon and AJ Taylor, the top three scorers with 13.3, 12.6 and 11.1 points per game, respectively. Taylor, a junior forward, is a force down low as he has tallied 6.9 rebounds per game and has 11 total blocks on the year — both best on the team. Big East Co-Defensive Player of the Year Isaiah Whaley will have to stay on his toes if he wants to contain Taylor’s presence.
Tipoff for the game is set for 4 p.m. at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs. The game will be broadcast live on FS2.