It’s finally that time again. After a long eight-month offseason, college basketball is back! That means the Huskies return to the hardwood on Nov. 6 against Northern Arizona University. While many expect Connecticut to breeze by the Lumberjacks, there are still many aspects of Monday night’s showdown that all fans should be excited about.
Despite winning their fifth NCAA National Championship last year, the UConn men’s basketball team comes into Monday night’s contest ranked No. 6 in the country. While some Connecticut fans may be up in arms about this, this ranking makes sense. The Huskies lost three of last year’s starters to the NBA: Andre Jackson Jr., Jordan Hawkins and Adama Sanogo. In spite of losing significant firepower, UConn still has a tremendous roster that will showcase their talent in front of an electric Gampel Pavilion crowd on Monday night.
Connecticut’s matchup against NAU will be the first look at highly touted NBA prospect Stephon Castle. The McDonald’s All-American can do it all. He is a polished playmaker, can punish defenses from all ends of the floor and will use all of his 6-foot-6 frame to score tough finishes inside the paint. The Georgia native’s bread and butter is hitting turnaround jumpers while backing down his defender. Castle is also unfazed by tight defense, making his shot all the more difficult to guard.
Getting a win is UConn’s top priority; however, Alex Karaban is also looking to showcase his leadership beyond the boxscore. “Winning is number one, but then right after that just being a leader,” said the sophomore forward. “Just making sure that for all my teammates out there, it’s easier on the court if I’m out there with them.”
NAU is coming off of a season where they finished 12-23 and 5-13 in Big Sky play. While many have counted the Lumberjacks out before the opening tip, head coach Shane Burcar isn’t deterred by the odds.
“In [the] case of UConn, some people wanna play, but most of the people don’t want to,” Burcar told the Connecticut Scoreboard Podcast last Wednesday, “Couldn’t be a better for game for us on opening night, no matter what happens in a game, I like to think we will be better because of it.”
While NAU finished ninth in the Big Sky last season, they caught fire at the perfect time. In the Big Sky tournament, they won in the first three rounds, including an upset of the No. 1 seed, Eastern Washington. They advanced to the Big Sky Championship but lost 85-78 to Montana State. Burcar and the Lumberjacks will look to keep that momentum rolling into their matchup with Connecticut on Monday night.
Similar to the Huskies, the Lumberjacks’ roster has changed greatly from last season. NAU lost its two top scorers, Jalen Cone and Xavier Fuller, so they will need to rely on others to pick up the slack. Carson Towt has the X-factor on this Lumberjack squad. Despite being undersized, Burcar has said that the 6-foot-7 power forward “can rebound with anyone in the country.” On the offensive end, Towt was also an efficient scorer last season, posting 10 points per game on 53.2% shooting.
There is no shortage of excitement for this contest. Not only will fans be treated to a great game, but last year’s NCAA National Championship banner will be unveiled 30 minutes before the game. This matchup has bigger implications beyond the final score. UConn is expected to cruise by, but how this squad functions as a collective unit should be closely watched. There will be kinks early on that will have to be worked out, but the question is, how long will that take? Will it take the duration of this game, or will it take until January? No matter what happens Monday night, remember UConn basketball is back and their sights are set high.