Depth of its rotation is the biggest NCAA Tournament asset for the UConn men’s basketball team

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ALBANY – When the UConn men’s basketball team was at its best, and it felt like a double-digit win was guaranteed in the nonconference, the Huskies were an extremely difficult scout because Dan Hurley could bring four, five players in to make an impact off the bench.

The rotation shortened up a bit after the calendar flipped and UConn lost five of eight to Big East opponents in January.

“I want to play nine players in a perfect world,” Hurley said Saturday. “I think during the mid part of the year when we were struggling, I probably got a little too tight with the rotation, and that was my mistake. Obviously I’ve learned from it, and I’m trying to trust these guys more.”

The value in a deep bench was on display Friday, when Hurley brought Donovan Clingan, Joey Calcaterra and Nahiem Alleyne into the game. That trio combined for 17 of the Huskies’ 37 points in the first half against Iona and kept them in the game.

“One of the keys of having a great basketball team is when you sub, either foul trouble or fatigue, you don’t drop off that much,” Pitino said after losing to UConn, 87-63. “That’s what Connecticut has.”

The starters who were struggling got some extra time to warm up and shake any NCAA Tournament jitters, and Hurley didn’t need much from his substitutes in the second half when the starters came out ready. Iona, already worn down, couldn’t do anything to stop Adama Sanogo with relatively fresh legs or a confident Jordan Hawkins – that duo scored 35 of UConn’s 50 second half points on 13-of-17 shooting from the field.

“Then obviously we have an ability to wear a team down. Iona played as good as they could play for a half,” Hurley said. “We were playing okay offensively and guarding just okay, but eventually we have a chance to break a team because we have a chance to be fresh in the last 10, 12 minutes of the game.”

In the early part of the season, one could count on UConn to go on a massive scoring run near the midpoint of the second half almost every game.

After the first Butler game on Dec. 17, UConn’s second road game of the season, Hurley made a comment about offensive rebounds being demoralizing to an opponent. He said, “Playing with that type of relentlessness, it’s like a body blow that eventually leads to a headshot knockout because it’s demoralizing to guard well, force a miss, and now we’ve just got guys on trampolines on the backboard.”

Hurley’s group prides itself on being dominant on the backboard, and it is. UConn ranks No. 1 in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, according to KenPom, and has the third-best offense in terms of efficiency largely because of it. Same goes for having the bench throw the body blows and wear down the opponent, then bringing in the starters with a massive energy advantage for the knockout.

On Friday, with UConn down one and struggling to keep up with Iona’s scolding shooters, Hurley subbed out four of his starters and left his best defender Andre Jackson in with Clingan, Calcaterra, Alleyne and backup point guard Hassan Diarra. Less than a minute after taking off their warmup shirts and stepping onto the court for the first time since warmups, Calcaterra and Alleyne made back-to-back 3-pointers and got the Huskies up four.

“I felt like us bench guys, Joey, me, Donovan, we gave a lift out there in the first half,” Alleyne said. “Once we see something like that (the starters struggling), we know we’ve got to bring the energy even more. Slow starts happen, but us bench guys gotta keep the energy going, gotta get stops, rebounds, defend – just the little things that’s just gonna get us hyped, maybe get a highlight play out there, just get us hyped so the starters can be like, ‘Alright, now that we see our bench guys doing something let’s just turn it up.”

UConn will have to turn it up in its second round matchup against Saint Mary’s. The Gaels are second in the nation in preventing offensive rebounds, per KenPom, and are Top 10 in defensive efficiency coming out of the West Coast Conference.

Saint Mary’s long-time head coach Randy Bennett began his scout with trying to stop Sanogo, and for good reason after he secured a 28-point, 13-rebound double-double in the first round. But Bennett knows UConn can beat teams in multiple ways.

“I don’t want to say (UConn’s frontcourt) is the only challenge,” Bennett said. “They have good players, good guards, and they’re coming at you downhill and in transition. But, those two guys (Sanogo and Clingan) are good, that’s a really good freshman backing him up. And then Sanogo, I mean, you don’t have to watch him very long to figure out he’s a force…

“They are a big part of the deal – like I said, not the only challenge, they have multiple ways to attack you, that’s why they’re good – but you’re not gonna get too far unless you can do something with those two.”

UConn will try to speed up Saint Mary’s pace, which is notoriously slow, but Hurley will be able to throw out several different looks to maximize his unknowns.

“The depth around here is good,” Alleyne said comfortably in UConn’s locker room. “I feel like us four could play on any squad, start on any squad, but that’s not our role right now. Our role is to get in there, give a spark out there for the starters so we could give them a little rest so when they come back in they’ve got the spark. Gotta keep the energy going.”