Men’s Basketball: No. 5 Huskies gear up for Empire Classic

Connecticut guard Tristen Newton (2) shoots against Georgetown guard Primo Spears (1). Dan Hurley and company will look to keep their undefeated start alive against their stiffest competition yet in the Empire Classic. Photo by Nick Wass/AP Photo

The UConn men’s basketball team moved to 3-0 to kick off their 2023-24 campaign following their 87-53 blowout win over Mississippi Valley State. Dan Hurley and company will look to keep their undefeated start alive against their stiffest competition yet in the Empire Classic. First on the slate for the Huskies are the 2-0 Indiana Hoosiers. 

These two programs have a well-documented history of playing each other. The last time they squared off was in the 2019 Jimmy V Classic. In that contest, Indiana narrowly edged out Connecticut 57-54. Before that, these teams met in the finals of the 2013 Empire Classic, where UConn won 59-58. This matchup took place the same season that Connecticut won its fourth NCAA National Championship. 

However, the Huskies are not just playing Indiana this weekend. They enter a tournament with a semifinal-style bracket, with the winner of this matchup playing in the championship game and the loser relegated to the third-place match. Connecticut will face either Texas or Louisville afterward, depending on how each team fairs in their initial clash. 

This weekend, a big question for the Huskies surrounds the status of Stephon Castle. The Georgia native missed last Tuesday’s matchup against the Delta Devils with a knee injury sustained during the program’s win over Stonehill. According to Hurley, there is a question of when he will be back on the court for Connecticut. 

“I don’t think we are nervous about this being a long-term thing.” said Hurley on Castle’s injury, “We think it’s pretty minor. If he’s gonna miss time, it won’t be much.” 

Looking at UConn’s opponent on Sunday, the Hoosiers head into this meeting undefeated. They come off the brink of a 23-12 campaign that saw them exit in the second round of the March Madness tournament. However, their roster is much different than last season. Indiana lost two of their top scorers to the NBA, Trayce Jackson-Davis and Jalen Hood-Schifino. Jackson-Davis averaged 21 points per game on 58.1% from the field, 11 rebounds and four assists in 35 minutes per game, all of which were highs for last year’s Indiana squad. Hood-Schifino also played well, averaging 13.5 points per game on 42% shooting. Despite their significant losses, head coach Mike Woodson made a splash by recruiting fresh talent, which includes big man Kel’el Ware. 

The matchup between the 7-foot Arkansas native and Donovan Clingan will be one all college basketball fans will want to look out for. The Bristol native has not played against someone as talented as Ware for a significant amount of time during his college career. The former Oregon Duck comes into this matchup boasting 16.5 points and nine rebounds per game. As it sits, the superstar big man projects to be a first-round NBA draft pick, so how he performs against early-season elite competition is something NBA executives will take note of. The road to another national championship only gets tougher from here, and the Huskies will need Clingan to be on his A-game if they wish for an encore of last year’s success. 

UConn forward Alex Karaban (11), guard Stephon Castle (5), Tristen Newton (2) and Jaylin Stewart, and Hassan Diarra (10) celebrate from the bench late during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Monday, Nov. 6, 2023, in Storrs, Conn. Photo by Mary Schwalm/AP Photo

Something on the mind of many Husky fans regards who is going to step up this tournament weekend. Clingan believes the best is yet to come for him. Samson Johnson took a step back in the MVSU game, yet both have played well in their other matchups. Cam Spencer performed poorly against Stonehill, going 3-11 from the field. Three days later, he stepped up for his squad, scoring 25 points on 9-14 shooting.  

Another question Husky fans have on the mind is how Solomon Ball will look. If Castle misses another game, the freshman guard will likely fill in as a starter despite his initial struggles. The Virginia native scored 10 points, albeit on 3-12 shooting. It will be interesting to see how Ball rebounds in his second college start against some elite competition. 

Another area of improvement for Connecticut is their interior defense. The gap between the Huskies and MVSU was smaller than it could have been. The Delta Devils stayed competitive because the UConn defense allowed easy buckets in the paint. This simply won’t work against Indiana. They have too many weapons on offense and will make the Huskies pay if they do not improve. Another key area to watch out for is how disciplined the program is on the defensive end. Alex Karaban picked up three first-half fouls and another one early on in the second half, but the sophomore forward was not the only one in foul trouble. Tristen Newton picked up a pair of early fouls and had to sit for an extended period of time. 

There is no doubt that UConn can finish this weekend 5-0. However, its last matchup showed us how much there is to work on. The Huskies also showed off their depth. If a part of the Connecticut offense stalls out, this squad has proven that they can find other ways to score, which is essential for a championship-caliber team. The Huskies will take the court this Sunday at 1p.m. 

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