The UConn men’s basketball team is in prime position for success following their 95-52 blowout win over Northern Arizona. While there are still some things to clean up, the Huskies have a chance this Saturday to put all doubt to rest as they travel to Hartford, Connecticut, to host Stonehill.
While putting up 95 points in 40 minutes is impressive, the path to get there wasn’t perfect for Dan Hurley and company. Connecticut struggled early on from the charity stripe, shooting 9-17 in the first half. The free throw efficiency improved in the final 20 minutes, as they put up a respectable 15-20 mark. However, the shooting woes were not just from the line. The Huskies failed to capitalize on many of their three-point tries, finishing 28% from beyond the arc. On the bright side, a positive for the program was their ability to create offense in the paint, and this will be something to watch on Saturday afternoon. Even if the team’s shooting improves, why not continue that offensive barrage inside the paint? UConn scored 50 points inside the key against the Lumberjacks. With their incredible size, this scoring attack could prove to be too much for the young Skyhawks squad.
A big question in the Huskies’ Gampel Pavilion opener was how their rotation would look. Donovan Clingan didn’t even crack 15 minutes in the home opener as he’s coming off a foot strain, with Hurley revealing postgame that the center was limited to 20 minutes. In comparison, Alex Karaban, Tristen Newton and Cam Spencer all played over 25 minutes. Something else to note is the role Hassan Diarra played. The New York native came off the bench for 22 minutes and was solid, owning a plus/minus of 26. If Connecticut wishes to make another deep March run, their second unit needs to play like they did on Tuesday. There’s no reason to see why the gameplan for UConn’s bench unit would change for Saturday’s 12 p.m. matchup.
The outcome was never in doubt, and it made sense to get everyone in the rotation involved to dust the offseason cobwebs off, including Samson Johnson. Johnson, the veteran big man, posed major uncertainty heading into this season, as injuries have derailed his UConn career and he was essentially re-recruited by the Connecticut coaching staff to not leave for the portal. All preseason long, Hurley has discussed the “1-2 punch” potential that Johnson and Clingan could have, with comparisons quickly drawn to the dynamic that reigning Final Four MOP Adama Sanogo and Clingan had last year. The centers’ deadly combination was on display for banner night, and there’s no reason to believe the coaching staff will make any changes against Stonehill while the 7-foot-2 center gets back to full speed.
All of Connecticut’s starters played well, owning a plus/minusabove 15. However, the Husky with the most impressive performance on Monday was Karaban. The 6-foot-8 forward did it all on opening night, scoring a career-high 22 points and grabbing eight boards on 8-12 shooting. With his ability inside the paint, beyond the arc and in transition, he will be a matchup nightmare for the Skyhawks coaching staff.
In case you forgot, these two programs kicked off their 2022-2023 campaigns at the XL Center last season, with Connecticut grabbing the victory, 85-54. The matchup marked Stonehill’s first game in the Division-I competition, moving up from Division-II.
Since that 2022 showdown, the Skyhawks roster has dramatically changed, losing four players from last year’s squad. To offset those losses, Stonehill gained three transfers and two freshmen over the offseason. Shane O’Dell is a player acquired in the transfer portal who will look to make an immediate impact for his side. The 6-foot-6 guard, who can also play the three, transferred in from Saint Rose. As a Golden Knight, he averaged 16 points and nearly seven boards a game on 46% shooting from the field. Perhaps the most impressive facet of the New Yorker’s game is his endurance, as he played 32 minutes a night. Another guy to look out for is Max Zegarowski, the brother of former Creighton standout Marcus Zegarowski.
“[Zegarowski] is honestly one of the top shooters in the country.” Stonehill head coach Chris Kraus told the Connecticut Scoreboard Podcast on Tuesday, “[Zegarowski] is going to get the focus of a lot of scouting reports everywhere we go where people are going to try and take him away.”
Kraus giving heed to Zegarowski’s shooting ability isn’t just coach’s talk. The 6-foot-8 forward
had a breakout 2022-2023 campaign. The Massachusetts native averaged nearly 13 points a game on 45% from the field and 42% from downtown. He also has an ability inside the paint that Kraus has been vocal about incorporating. The Connecticut defense will have to gameplan for his unique offensive ability, as he is a lethal shooter and the unquestioned leader of this squad.
Never say never. However, the expectation is that the Huskies XL Center season opener will be similar to last year’s blowout. Stonehill still cannot match UConn’s firepower, as this is only their second year in Division-I competition. Despite this, there are broader themes that Connecticut fans should look out for. Aside from the expected outcome, this will be a game worth keeping tabs on for Husky fans.