Men’s Basketball: UConn takes on Arkansas under bright lights of Vegas in Sweet 16

3/1/2023 MBB vs DePaul by Sofia Sawchuk, Associate Photo Editor UConn men’s basketball blows past DePaul capturing a 88-59 victory at home in the XL Center in Hartford, Conn. on March 1, 2023. This was the last home game of the season for the Huskies, as they will end their regular season in Philadelphia competing against Villanova on Saturday.

Going from Albany to the incredible environment of Las Vegas is truly a change of scenery, yet, is the reality of this year’s NCAA Tournament environment for UConn men’s basketball. 

To get here took guts, preparation and some incredible play from the Huskies stars. Two fantastic performances in the second half that included the best of Adama Sanogo and production from UConn’s depth have all contributed to this team possessing the killer instinct needed to win in March. Just as they did in upstate New York, they’re going to need the same as the competition ramps up and the lights only get bigger.  

One opponent lies between UConn and a trip to the Elite Eight: The Arkansas Razorbacks. It’s been a minute since the Huskies have gone to battle with them — Nov. 26, 2016 to be exact. While that game was a blowout by a score of 102-67, UConn possesses a 3-1 advantage historically against their opponent and they’ll hope to repeat history with major stakes on the line. 

Of course, that’s no easy task, just like the tournament has shown this year. The Razorbacks stepped into their last matchup as the underdogs against a No. 1 seeded Kansas Jayhawks lineup and despite being down by as much as 12 in the second half, Eric Musselman’s squad climbed all the way back to defeat a Bill Self-less team that looked like they were in desperate need of his leadership from the sidelines. That game saw Davonte Daniels drop a stunning 25 points, followed by another excellent game from Ricky Council IV with 21 points.  

If there’s one thing to take away from this roster, especially after their comeback win over the Jayhawks, it’s that this team has talent from head to toe. Whether we’re talking about Daniel, Council IV, or freshman guard Jordan Walsh, there’s a reason this team is in the Sweet 16 and a big part of their success has been an excellent effort on the defensive end. The Razorbacks 93.4 defensive efficiency is ranked No. 15 in all of college basketball and other defensive categories like block percentage and steal percentage are both top 25 in college basketball. When you’re playing an elite offensive squad, it’s essential that you bring some excellent defense and Arkansas is certainly prepared for the challenge.  

“This has been as challenging and up and down season as I’ve ever been apart of. For these guys to be rewarded for sticking with it and being able to go to Las Vegas and participate with only 16 teams still standing, it’s really hard to make this tournament. [It’s] really hard to win a game in this tournament,” said Musselman after the Razorbacks win over Kansas. 

That statement certainly applies to UConn, fresh off two double-digit wins against Iona and Saint Mary’s. As players have preached all season, it’s going to take another excellent performance from their bench to take the Huskies to an Elite Eight performance on Saturday, where they’d take on either Gonzaga or UCLA. It may be the shot of Nahiem Alleyne or the inside presence of Donovan Clingan, but it nonetheless will all be needed for a win on Thursday.  

“I said from the beginning; I think our depth is going to win us the championship. They’ve been playing great this whole tournament. So if we just continue doing that with our second group, our first and second group, how they’re playing, I think we’re unbeatable,” said sophomore Jordan Hawkins. 

The star guard from Gaithersburg, Md. will certainly need to be at his best on offense, especially when the Razorbacks leave little room for mistakes on defense. There’s no room to gamble here for UConn, even in Vegas. If both Hawkins, the dominant frontcourt presence of Sanogo and the team’s depth are all seen on Thursday, it’s hard to see a negative outlook for the Huskies.  

This one will tip off at 7:15 p.m. EST on CBS. 

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