STORRS, Conn. – UConn men’s basketball fans had much to look forward to in their 2023-24 opener. Not only did Monday signify freshman phenom Stephon Castle’s collegiate debut, but it was Connecticut’s first game coming off of their fifth NCAA National Championship. The excitement for the contest against Northern Arizona was palpable. Students started lining up at 8 a.m., vying for a coveted spot at the front of the student section. Nearly two hours before opening tip, the line to get in from the south gate grew out past Hugh S. Greer Field House. The energy in Storrs only grew as the night progressed.
30 minutes before the season kicked off, fans witnessed a special ceremony honoring last year’s national championship squad. The pregame festivities included the unveiling of last year’s national championship banner and a video message from former Huskies Joey Calcaterra, Adama Sanogo, Andre Jackson Jr. and Jordan Hawkins. Despite the buzz from last year, head coach Dan Hurley conveyed his team’s message — it’s time to get banner No. 6.
The rowdy Storrs crowd tested the Lumberjacks early and often, playing the role of the unofficial sixth man on the court. From the opening tip to the final whistle, with every call, for and against the Huskies, the sold out crowd let themselves be known. And it was clear that it played a factor for Connecticut. Following a Samson Johnson dunk in the first quarter, Hurley ran to midcourt, shouting and egging on the Connecticut crowd to get loud. This was one of many instances of the crowd’s electricity.
The Huskies started Monday night strong, with sophomore center Donovan Clingan making his presence felt on the offensive end. UConn’s first half attack ran through the big man as he started the scoring with a second-chance putback. Even when the Bristol-native wasn’t scoring, he was the catalyst of the Husky offense, specifically through the pick and roll. Clingan is not only tall, at 7-foot-2, but is also so skilled that he left the NAU defense no choice but to play help defense on him. The goal was to prevent Clingan from either dunking it or dishing it out to a leaking guard for an easy floater. Throughout the night, Clingan either found an open man outside, set up a cutting guard or took it himself. Suffice to say, NAU couldn’t contain the big man.
It wouldn’t have been unreasonable to think the UConn track team was playing NAU with the pace Connecticut kept. Even in the second half, up 17 points, there was no walking to be found. With every defensive rebound, the Huskies sprinted up the court — methodically spacing the floor, with either the guard taking it coast to coast or finding a shooter on the wing. Something in this contest that could play a role later on in the season was the implementation of the full-court press. Connecticut used this defensive strategy from the jump until the game was out of reach. After the first half, they still maintained a tight halfcourt press. As soon as the NAU ball handler crossed the mid-line, a UConn defender swarmed him, which more than once led to a Lumberjack turnover.
Despite all of the good Hurley’s squad accomplished Monday, there were some areas for improvement. UConn struggled early on from the charity stripe, shooting 9-17 in the first 20 minutes. The free throw shooting improved in the second half, as they put up a respectable 15-20 mark. The shooting woes were not just from the stripe. The Huskies failed to capitalize on many of their three-point tries, finishing 28% from downtown. Despite their inability to capitalize on these scoring opportunities, it is impressive that Connecticut still found a way to score 95 points, finding most of those chances inside the paint.
This is a positive sign for Connecticut fans, as every team goes through instances where the shots aren’t falling, so they need to create more opportunities inside, which Connecticut did. Once the shots start falling though, it will spell trouble for the opposition. Another encouraging marker for UConn fans is the Huskies’ performance in the rebounding department. Connecticut outrebounded NAU by a whopping 50-27 margin.
The performance of Samson Johnson is also something worth noting. Johnson shot 5-6 with 11 points, five rebounds and three blocks. It was a breakout performance for a player who has waited so long for his time to shine in Storrs, as he hopes to keep his role as the backup center.
“[Johnson] probably starts on other teams in the [Big East] conference, right, and when you talk about power schools, he probably starts on a lot of different schools,” NAU head coach Shane Burcar said postgame. “I don’t know the young man, but to stay here in the day of the transfer portal says a lot about him. [There’s] going to be a night where [Clingan] does get in foul trouble, and [Johnson] will come in, and he’ll play starter minutes, and he will be ready to play I think.”
Monday was a solid performance by the Connecticut men, though they were far from perfect. At times, they struggled to hit jump shots or make free throws. Regardless, it was the first game of their title defense with a largely new Connecticut squad. It’s not uncommon to exit with areas of opportunity on opening night, but again, putting up 95 points isn’t exactly struggling.
The Huskies found other ways to get the job done and won the game on the interior by outrebounding and outhustling the Lumberjacks. UConn returns to the hardwood this Saturday against Stonehill, an opportunity to fine-tune areas of improvement, while building on their successes.