This was a pretty easy pick, with the bad taste of the Round of 64 loss to Maryland last year still resonating in UConn fans’ mouths. While it’s not likely that the Huskies get upset for a second straight year, most teams around this time get a little too comfortable with where they’re at talent-wise, leaving the door open for scrappy underdogs to shock the world. There are some talented potential matchups at the 12 seed, with teams like Indiana, North Texas and VCU falling into that category. It’s up to the Huskies to not get complacent and stick to their identity, as Dan Hurley reminded us in his media availability on Tuesday. Hurley ran with his 45:07 mantra over the offseason, alluding to the last 5:07 of the Big East Tournament loss to Creighton and all 40 minutes of the Maryland game, so hopefully he ingrained that mentality in his guys before playoff season.
This kind of varies. Yes, the Huskies could have a miraculous, fairytale run like in 2014. In fact, they’re projected to be seeded two spots higher than that year’s squad. However, even at its peak, I see UConn’s ceiling for this year as an Elite Eight/Final Four team. Even making it that far would be a massive success and testament to Hurley’s culture shift since he showed up to campus in 2018. This is a very talented team that has proven it can stick with top-level talent. It was fantastic in wins over Auburn and Villanova, and its only double-digit loss of the year was an away defeat to the Wildcats. This team is always in the game and puts up a ton of fight, so the ceiling for the Huskies is grinding out a few games against tough competition, which would send them late into the second weekend or even the Final Four.
Just because they’re good enough to reach the Final Four doesn’t mean it’s going to work out that way. March is always pure madness, so there will likely be some variable that will stop the Huskies in their tracks. I think they will make it out of the first weekend, as it’s entirely possible to even be favored in their Round of 32 matchup. However, all it takes is one game of freezing cold offense from the bench, another turnover heavy showing from the starters or early foul trouble for Adama Sanogo and Isaiah Whaley to send Connecticut packing. This is very deservedly a Sweet 16 team.
Adama Sanogo – What more can be said about the sophomore forward, who has consistently been the focal point of this offense. Since his breakout freshman campaign and a massive 30 point performance against now-No. 4 Auburn, Hurley and Co. have run their offense “inside-out,” utilizing Sanogo as a top option down low, then finding open guys on the wing if he gets doubled. The All-Big East First Teamer is averaging 18.8 points per game in his last five contests he hasn’t gotten into foul trouble in, with the outlier a blowout win over Georgetown. If this guy stays hot, look out, because not only does he provide an enormous boost on offense, but the rest of the team tends to thrive with him.
RJ Cole – The UConn student section may have been chanting “one more year” at the senior guard on Saturday, but assuming Cole is moving on, he’s due for his March moment before he leaves. There have been plenty of clutch, scrappy Husky guards over the years, with Kemba Walker and Shabazz Napier coming to mind. The All-Big East First Teamer certainly fits that bill, as he leads the team with 15.8 points per game. When Sanogo struggles or the team is in a cold stretch, it’s always Cole that’s working on both ends of the floor, drawing charges or making clutch baskets. He’s easily been the most consistent player for Connecticut this season, so look for him to play a massive role in the big dance for the Huskies.
Tyrese Martin – Despite not being named to an all-conference team this year, Martin has the makeup to be the stuff of March legends. Among all players with at least 30 attempts, the senior guard is leading the Huskies in three-point percentage (43.9%) and is third in the team in points per game (13.4). He tends to have high volume scoring games in spurts, so if UConn makes a deep run into the tournament, there’s a very high chance the guard contributed in a huge way for at least a couple of contests. On a nightly basis, his 7.6 rebounds per game out of the backcourt helps Connecticut be one of the best rebounding teams in the nation.
Bench Play – In his press conference on Tuesday, Hurley stated that the difference-makers on his team, the players that could put UConn over the top of the competition were on the bench. He’s absolutely right, as in some of the team’s biggest wins of the year, the combination of Tyler Polley and Jordan Hawkins scored at least 20 points. Both players are picking up steam at just the right time in their up-and-down seasons, and with Jalen Gaffney playing more consistently and Akok Akok providing more quality minutes off the bench, this group of guys could very easily be the deciding factor in some NCAA Tournament games.