Men’s Basketball: No. 20 Huskies fall to Friars, look ahead to Golden Eagles

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There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and the UConn Huskies coming up short in conference openers. 

Even in front of over 15,000 fans in a packed XL Center on Saturday night, the No. 20 Huskies couldn’t seem to get it done offensively against a talented Providence team, losing 57-53. 

This game marks Connecticut’s eighth conference-opening loss in nine contests, dating back to their first matchup in the American Athletic Conference. Their other Big East opener, as you may remember, was the historic 40-point performance by NBA lottery pick James Bouknight in an OT loss to then-No. 9 Creighton in an empty Gampel Pavilion.

There was a lot of excitement in the air for UConn’s first Big East game with fans in attendance since leaving the conference for the American, with a sold-out crowd and a street party across from the XL Center acting as the pregame event. The excitement definitely carried over into the arena, as the cheers got to ear-deafening levels at times. 

“The crowd showed up tonight. We let them down by digging ourselves into a big hole,” guard Tyrese Martin said postgame. “When (we) finally cut it close enough to take the lead, they definitely showed up, and we’re appreciative of that.”

The game was very back and forth to start, with every sign pointing to a classic Big East game with lots of physicality and defense. The Huskies led for most of the first half, but an 11-1 run by PC to close out the half saw UConn suddenly down nine with a lot of ground to cover.

Coming out of the break, the crowd was ready for a comeback but the team certainly wasn’t. Four consecutive missed shots for Connecticut paired with a dominant 3-for-3 run from Preseason All-Big East First Team member and big man Nate Watson increased the Providence lead to 15. This seemed to be representative of the team’s total performance, as they missed far too many looks but allowed too many points in the paint.

While the Friars’ lead would get as high as 16 with just over 10 minutes to go in the contest, the Huskies began to chip away as time was winding down.

Credit to this Providence team, they stopped the UConn momentum shift as best as they could. Every time Connecticut would make a highlight or game-shifting play that really got the crowd going, PC seemingly was there to stop the bleeding with a big shot to keep the Huskies at bay. Most notably, Andre Jackson hit a clutch three-pointer with just nine minutes to go to make it a seven-point game, but immediately after, Jared Bynum answered with a trey of his own.

“I thought Jared [Bynum’s] three may have been the shot of the game,” said Providence head coach Ed Cooley. “They were coming, and that’s a … basket that a veteran team is gonna need night in and night out in an environment like this.”

UConn kept coming with a vengeance, however, getting the game to within two points off a Tyler Polley three, his first and only basket of the night. With just under two minutes in the contest, it looked like a Husky lead was imminent, until it wasn’t. Five missed shots down that stretch, including three point attempts from some of their best shooters in Polley, Martin and Jordan Hawkins, didn’t do the team any favors, even with an absolute gift of three straight missed free throws from PC forward Noah Horchler.

“Credit Providence, they played better than us,” coach Dan Hurley said on Saturday night. “We fought hard, we had a chance, had a couple of shots to tie it, had a chance to take the lead there [late in the game] and just couldn’t get that shot to get to even our head.”

The deep ball struggles were a big storyline for this team, as the Huskies haven’t had a three point shooting percentage over .400 since the game against Auburn in Atlantis. Those struggles continued, as UConn went just 8-for-29 from beyond the arc. The top shooters just haven’t been showing up, with unlikely shooters Isaiah Whaley and Andre Jackson going 3-for-4 on Saturday while the rest of the team shot an embarrassing 5-for-25. 

One of the biggest keys to this game was the return of Martin, who had missed the last few games due to a wrist injury. The Huskies definitely got better with his presence, as he shot 6-for-14 for 15 points alongside five rebounds and an assist. There were moments where he was taking over the entire court, which is exactly what his team needed from him. On one offensive possession, Martin went down and came up clutching his wrist, but appears to be okay.

While the guard made his return, there was still one big name missing from the court: sophomore big man Adama Sanogo. The forward has been great for UConn in the games that he’s played, averaging 15.6 points per game on 55.2 percent shooting in eight games. Despite missing four games now, he is still among the team leaders in blocks with 14. His presence certainly could have helped the Huskies on both sides of the floor.

And it’s not just the impact Sanogo gives on the court, it’s the lack of impact the team has been getting from everyone else. At the beginning of the year, Hurley was understandably happy with the depth of his team: three Top 100 freshmen and multiple former starters off the bench, not to mention the 2020 Big East Sixth Man of the Year in Polley. In more recent interviews, he’s seemingly changed his tone. 

Look at the combined stats from the three guys that came off the bench for the team. Polley, Hawkins and Jalen Gaffney had a total of four points on 1-for-13 shooting alongside five rebounds, three assists and three turnovers. They recorded no steals or blocks in their combined 49 minutes on the court.

Furthermore, Hurley didn’t so much as glance at the other three freshmen, Richie Springs, Samson Johnson and Rahsool Diggins. From what we’ve seen so far, they understandably look inexperienced, but they have to make a better impact than that statline, no?

Regardless, the team should be able to learn from this tough home loss and look forward to the same level of competition for another 19 Big East matchups. 

“The Big East is a monster, man,” said Cooley. “I don’t think we get enough respect nationally for the depth of this league.”

There’s no smooth sailing from here. Night in and night out, this team will have to fight for their season, and contests like these should make UConn all the better for it come tournament time.

Their next opponent comes in the form of a talented Marquette team on the road. The Golden Eagles are 8-4 to start the year and are ranked 74th in the country according to the KenPom ratings. The team will attempt to snap a two-game losing streak, including their Big East opener on the road against then-No. 22 Xavier. 

Marquette has a few notable wins, including a neutral site victory over No. 10 Illinois and a home dub against a tough West Virginia team. The Golden Eagles are led by redshirt freshman Justin Lewis and graduate student Darryl Morsell, who top the team with 15.3 and 13.8 points per game, respectively. The Huskies need to look out for redshirt junior Greg Elliott as well, as he had a team-high 18 points in Marquette’s loss to Xavier before fouling out.

The biggest question for UConn is the availability of Sanogo, whose presence could really give this team a needed boost. He is questionable to play as of the time of writing. If not, the Huskies will have to step up their offensive production, namely from their bench.

The game is set to tip off at 9 p.m. on Tuesday at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, and will be broadcast live on FS1.

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