After what seemed like an endless hiatus from its beloved conference, the UConn men’s basketball team is back in the Big East, and back in front of fans in the month of March.
Soak it in, Huskies fans.
It’s no secret that Connecticut is a lock to make the tournament. TeamRankings has the squad at a 100% percent chance to dance come Selection Sunday, with the most likely probability being a No. 5 seed – its highest placement since the historic 2011 title run.
But this season hasn’t been without its peaks and valleys. Who shined during the peaks, but faltered in other moments? In this edition of Jon’s Take, I’ll be looking at four players that need to find consistency for the Huskies to see success in, not only the Big East Tournament, but the NCAA Tournament as well.
As a disclaimer, I’m not going to mention guard R.J. Cole and forward Isaiah Whaley anywhere besides right here. Why? These two are already the most consistent duo on the court. In any given game, the Huskies can depend on an all-conference caliber player in Cole to get the buckets needed to end droughts, and draw charges on the other end of the floor. The same goes for the reigning Big East Defensive Player of the Year in Whaley, who has stepped up his scoring production this year while still anchoring a top-25 defense in the country.
Adama Sanogo, Sophomore
While Cole is clearly the most dependable guy on this team, Sanogo is “the guy” on this UConn squad. Teams will revolve their whole defensive plan around stopping Sanogo’s inside shot, and for good reason. The second-year forward is a massive scoring threat – that is, when he’s able to stay consistent. In some of the last few games, Sanogo has gotten into foul trouble early, including in the Georgetown game last Sunday. Historically, head coach Dan Hurley is a big believer in sitting a player with two fouls until the end of the half, so losing a key impact guy like Sanogo would really hinder this Husky offense.
Another area Sanogo needs to have consistency is in his ability with the ball. Defenses have played sharper since his breakout 30-point performance against Auburn, double-teaming the big man and forcing steals or travels while not letting him get close to the basket. Sanogo currently ranks second on the team in turnovers with 60 on the year, and is coming off of a five-turnover showing against lowly Georgetown in just 19 minutes of play. Gotta clean up the mistakes, because those could be complete momentum shifters come tournament time.
Tyrese Martin, Senior
It’s no secret that Martin can score. He slots in at third on the team with 13.3 points per game, and he has added 25 and 27-point outings against Marquette and Butler this season, respectively. But the problem is how often Martin can put up solid numbers. After a crazy five-game stretch that saw the guard average 16.6 points per game, Martin hasn’t been able to reach double-digit scoring in the three games since. In his 27-point game against Butler, the senior put up all of his points in the last 20:06 of game time.
Consistency is key for a guy like Martin. By no means does he need to put up 16 points a night, but hitting double digits and taking some of the load off of guys like Sanogo and Cole can really help this team succeed. One thing he’s done exceptionally well recently is his work on the glass, averaging a wild 10.1 rebounds per game, as a guard. He ranks 11th in the conference in that stat over this year, and his continued work on the boards will be crucial to this Huskies team down the stretch.
Tyler Polley, Graduate Student, and Jordan Hawkins, Freshman
This duo might be the most pivotal to a long playoff push in either tournament. While easily having the most up-and-down years on the team, Polley and Hawkins both can make a major impact on this squad. Let’s take a look at the two biggest games of the year: the wins over currently top-11 squads in Villanova and Auburn. In both of those matchups combined, the pair is averaging 25.5 points per game. But in some of the worst losses of the season against Villanova, Creighton and Xavier, Polley and Hawkins averaged just 5.6 points per game. As fellow beat writer Shreyas Laddha found, UConn is 5-0 in games when the duo each has double-digit points to their names, with a margin of victory of 13.2 points in those contests.
Thankfully for the Huskies, it looks like they are finding their stride, as Polley and Hawkins are averaging 12 and 6.7 points per matchup, respectively, over Connecticut’s recent three-game stretch. Hurley had boasted at the beginning of the year of the team’s depth. While he partially meant his three true “takeover” players in Cole, Sanogo and Martin, it’s no secret that the depth and overall talent of this team significantly increases with quality bench play from Polley and Hawkins. They’re currently on the right track, and only time will tell if they can keep their successes going into the tournaments.