If must-win games in January, with nearly two months left before the conference tournament, are a thing, the No. 15 and sliding UConn men’s basketball team’s matchup at Seton Hall Wednesday would certainly qualify.
With lackluster defense and no offensive rhythm, the Huskies didn’t give their home fans at the XL Center any reason to stick behind them in the second half of Sunday’s double-digit loss to St. John’s, as coach Dan Hurley expressed. For the fourth time in the last five games, UConn found the hole it dug for itself was too deep to dig out of as the game got late and players got sick of swinging the shovels.
Hurley lamented a lack of effort, offensive woes leading to defensive complacency, and after the game was left pointing to the fact that players have easy outs in today’s landscape if things aren’t going their way.
“There’s a lot more going on in dealing with these guys,” Hurley said. “The hard thing is, if the season isn’t going exactly the way a player would want, at this point in the year, and they know there are outs in a couple of months, sometimes they give in a little bit. All programs are dealing with that, and that’s why you see some of these performances that are uncharacteristic of teams that looked great early on. I do think players in general are not staying in the fight and not trying to find a way to help. I see it. I see a look of that, I’ve seen it the last two years.”
UConn started out 14-0 and riding high as the No. 2 team in the country, and there was a significant case to be made for them deserving to be the top dogs, ranked No. 1.
Since then though, they’ve lost three games on the road, which at first appeared to be their Achilles heel. But then came the loss at home, to a St. John’s team that entered the game with a 2-5 record in conference play and would’ve been easy to look past two weeks prior. Fans headed for the exits with plenty of time still left on the game clock in the second half.
Signs of a fractured locker room spilled over into the post-game press conference, where redshirt freshman Alex Karaban admitted a drop in cohesiveness since the start of the season and agreed with sophomore guard Jordan Hawkins that “everything” needs to be done better.
Intriguing also for Wednesday’s game is the coaching matchup of Hurley and his point guard successor at Seton Hall, Shaheen Holloway, who led St. Peter’s on a captivating miracle run to the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight last season. Holloway joined a program that saw plenty of recent success under former head coach Kevin Willard, who left for a higher-paying job at Maryland.
Expectations weren’t through the roof for the Pirates entering this season. They were picked to finish seventh in the preseason Big East coaches’ poll and had just one player, point guard Kadary Richmond, on any preseason award list. Richmond, picked as a second-team All-Big East player before this year, scored 27 points and 17 straight in the second half of the Hall’s last victory over UConn, in overtime in Newark last season.
The Pirates began conference play with the Big East’s top three teams, Providence, Xavier and Marquette – all of which handed the Huskies losses – and played the first two tight, losing by four to the Friars and by three to Sean Miller’s Musketeers. The Hall started 1-4 in conference play, a 22-point win over St. John’s followed by a 22-point loss to Creighton rounding out the first five. Since, the Pirates have won three straight over Butler, Georgetown and DePaul – the latter two on the road – and are tied with UConn for fifth place in the conference with a 4-4 record against Big East opponents.
Here is everything you need to know as the Huskies look to prevent a spiral:
Site: Prudential Center, Newark, N.J.
Time: 6:30 p.m.
Series: UConn leads, 34-15
Last meeting: Mar. 10, 2022 – UConn 62, Seton Hall 52 in the Big East tournament quarterfinal
Last Seton Hall win: Jan. 8, 2022 – Seton Hall 90, UConn 87 in overtime
Radio: UConn Sports Network on 97.9 ESPN
Time for a lineup change? After Sunday’s loss to St. John’s, Hurley said he’d “definitely” be “looking for a spark.” Perhaps that means a change in who spends the most time on the floor.
The most glaring hole in the Huskies’ lineup comes at point guard, where Tristen Newton (27.5 minutes per game) has struggled, like most of UConn’s guards recently, on both ends of the court. Newton transferred from East Carolina, where he was primarily a scorer and the competition didn’t approach Big East-levels of physicality. Since conference play began, Newton has averaged about 3.8 assists and just over 1.6 turnovers per game. For the season, his 4.1 assists per game rank second behind Andre Jackson and his 2.2 turnovers per game are the most on the team.
Behind Newton on the roster is Hassan Diarra, a defense-first point guard who has played 15.7 minutes per game and disrupted opponents, but his offensive struggles (29.5% from the field and 19.2% from beyond the arc) have kept him from a substantive increase in minutes. Jackson provides a skillful passing ability and a know-how within Hurley’s offense as a team captain and third-year player who could prove valuable with the ball in his hands. He also possesses the downhill ability that could help balance the foul scales and provide a momentum boost with his aggressive finishing style.
If Hurley moves Jackson to the point, the open lineup spot could be awarded to Donovan Clingan, the 7-foot-2 Bristol Central alum who burst onto the scene as one of the best freshmen in the nation and provides a significant presence on the defensive end. That would mean playing him alongside 6-foot-9 Big East Preseason Player of the Year Adama Sanogo and leading to an adjustment as far as the type of defense the Huskies employ. UConn’s man-to-man defense has already shown its holes, so it could be a good time for a change to zone with two big men, which could be a significant boost to UConn’s porous efforts inside the arc.