In case you missed it, two weeks ago, the Associated Press released its top 25 pre-season polls, and with it came many storylines. Kansas ranked first, receiving 46 first-place votes, with Duke following closely behind. One of the most interesting teams to watch this season will be UConn. Despite winning its fifth national championship, Connecticut comes into the season ranked sixth according to the AP and third in the Big East coaches poll, with no coaches giving the program a first-place nod. Some Huskies fans may take this as a sign of disrespect, however, this team is much different from last year. Their three best players, Jordan Hawkins, Andre Jackson Jr. and Adama Sonogo are all in the NBA. The Big East Conference is arguably the best it has been in a long time but UConn isn’t letting this deter them.
“I think last year’s team we were really headlined by, you know, our superstars in Andre [Jackson Jr.], Jordan [Hawkins] and Adama [Sanogo].” Alex Karaban noted on the “lack of respect” UConn got in the preseason poll, adding, “and they really led the way for us. Myself, Donovan [Clingan], Tristen [Newton], we did a great job supporting them, so now that they’re gone we’re going to have to step in and fill those roles and people may not believe that we are capable of doing it, but I believe all three of us are.”
If Connecticut can make it in the Big East Conference, they can make it anywhere. There’s no doubt that their starting five can rival almost anyone else in the country, however, their X factor will show how deep they really are and that’s the UConn bench depth. This was the deciding factor last year for the Huskies, as Karaban himself was not a day-one starter. Samson Johnson held that role until the big man’s foot injury early last season. Johnson has never had a defining role on this team. As a freshman he played during the COVID-19 pandemic, so he was a member of a logjammed frontcourt hence, he didn’t see significant time. When he got his opportunity to start, he suffered an injury 16 minutes into his first game, which kept him out until January and Karaban took over the starting role. Undoubtedly, Johnson will play a massive role on this Husky team, and Karaban had plenty of praise for his teammate.
“He’s more than ready. He’s been waiting way too long to show his talent. Everyone in the program knows how talented of a player he is, and he’s going to be a huge surprise to people in the Big East, just his skill, his athleticism, his defensive presence, he’s really good.”
This does make sense, as coach Dan Hurley continually praised Johnson as having “wall potential,” meaning he believed Johnson could be a future NBA lottery pick. Unfortunately, circumstances out of his control have derailed that vision. Yet this season he has a crucial chance at flipping the script. He could be the sixth man on this Husky team, and if he puts the pieces together and plays like the player Hurley recruited, he will be as good as most teams’ starting power forwards.
Bench pieces aside, Hurley doesn’t put too much stock in any preseason poll.
“No, because it’s all a bunch of sh*t anyways, so it doesn’t matter.” Hurley said on Connecticut’s pre-season rankings, “You know Jordan Hawkins was not picked on an All-Conference team last year, and he led us through a dominant run and was a lottery pick.”
Despite this, Hurley acknowledged Connecticut’s Big East opponents will be as tough as ever. “I mean some of the stuff I get this year more than other years if you really look at the all-conference teams, player-wise, it was hard when you got through the second team, like really good players didn’t make one of the first two teams,” Hurley said. “We have three teams ranked in the top 8 of the AP Poll, we have probably three, maybe even four national championship contenders.”
Hurley is right to an extent, the pre-season rankings do not determine UConn’s or any other teams in the Big East’s finish. Last season, Marquette was ranked eighth, yet the program won the entire Big East tournament. Connecticut was unranked in the preseason AP poll, however, they were the last ones standing in the quest for their fifth national championship. It was not just Hurley saying this, but many coaches and players around the Big East acknowledged this sentiment and made it known that while it is nice to get this pre-season recognition, the job is not finished. The fight starts now, and while unproven, Connecticut’s new cast of stars looks to relish in the chance to prove the doubters wrong and come out on top of a loaded Big East Conference.