Four takeaways from the UConn men’s basketball team’s first loss of season; Huskies look to return to form at Providence

A loss was coming for the No. 2 UConn men’s basketball team, and against Xavier on Saturday, continued shooting woes and out-of-character defense led it there.

The road doesn’t get much easier in the next two weeks for the 14-1 Huskies, and the billboard of a target on their backs hasn’t gotten any smaller. Next up is Providence, which has won six in a row and dominated Butler on Thursday. Then the Huskies return to Storrs for another test against Creighton in Gampel Pavilion Saturday and fly out to Milwaukee for Marquette on Jan. 11.

UConn’s defense is its strength but the Huskies couldn’t do enough to disrupt the Musketeers, KenPom’s seventh-best offense in the nation that made 53.8% of its shots and capitalized on getting the Huskies into foul trouble with 23 made free throws on 28 attempts from the line.

While UConn shut down Sean Miller’s team from beyond the arc (4-of-13), where Xavier has the 10th-best 3-point percentage in the nation, the experienced Musketeers were ready and did damage inside. It was 7-footer Jack Nunge and 6-foot-9 Zach Freemantle who worked in tandem to break down Adama Sanogo and Alex Karaban for a combined 31 points, 14 rebounds, eight assists and four steals. And it was exceptional guard play by Colby Jones, 16 points on 7-of-10 shooting, and Jerome Hunter, who torched the Huskies for 15 points and five rebounds off the bench and made all nine of his free throws.

Xavier knew UConn wanted to force turnovers and win in transition, but was able to flip the script and rather score 18 points off 16 Husky giveaways, while allowing UConn just eight points off 12 turnovers.

It will be a tough start to 2023 for Hurley’s team, which will have a few demanding practices leading into Providence, a need to return to its defensive identity and an answer for poor recent offense (averaging 42.5% from the field since the start of Big East play) ever so critical.

Here are some key takeaways that led to the loss as the Huskies hope to get back on track:

Living and dying by the 3-ball

UConn tied a program record in 3-point attempts on Saturday with 37, the same mark set in the opening game of this year’s Phil Knight Invitational against Oregon. Before that game on Nov. 24, the previous high mark (35) came in the 2009 Big East Tournament quarterfinal against Syracuse – the longest game in Big East history that resulted in a 127-117 Syracuse victory after six overtime periods.

In its four games since Big East play began, UConn has attempted 31.5 3-pointers per game and made 34.1% of them. Prior to Big East play, the Huskies averaged 25.4 3-point attempts per game and shot the deep ball at a 37.6% clip.

Now, as teams begin to find weaknesses in Hurley’s offense, redistributed pressure away from Andre Jackson has provided difficulty finding open shots for Jordan Hawkins (30% from 3 in Big East play). Most of Karaban’s 3-point attempts have been relatively open and in rhythm, though he has maintained his shooting percentage of about 36% from beyond the arc.

When they were left scrambling for a comeback, all six of UConn’s shots in Saturday’s final 80 seconds came from beyond the arc – all of them missed.

What to do with Andre Jackson

Jackson – a superstar athlete, a galvanizing leader and UConn’s motor on both ends of the floor – has allowed doubters of his shooting ability affect the entire offense of the Huskies. After receiving technical fouls for speaking to the opponent’s bench in back-to-back games, Jackson responded by shooting 3-pointers in volume as he was left open by Xavier.

To his credit, Jackson made four of his first nine and forced Miller’s team to guard him a bit tighter around the perimeter. He took three in desperation as the Huskies tried to climb out of a six-point deficit with 90 seconds left.

Jackson, who played a team-high 37 minutes Saturday, is too valuable to the Huskies on the defensive end and in transition for Hurley to take him off the court. But the Huskies need to figure out a way to put him in a position to be successful offensively, where he does add value driving to the rim, grabbing rebounds and passing the ball (he was two assists shy of a triple-double on Saturday).

Composure, discipline defending inside

Xavier wanted to get the Huskies into foul trouble on Saturday and did with Karaban fouling out, Tristen Newton and Hawkins picking up four each. Most of those fouls came in the lane, where the frontcourt of Xavier was too much to handle and shifty guards like Hunter who made all nine of his foul shots off the bench.

Donovan Clingan might have helped inside, but it was likely the perimeter and high-low threat of Nunge and Freemantle that caused concern for Hurley and got Clingan onto the court for just seven minutes. Still, the 7-foot-2 bench weapon, Sanogo reserve, put together a four-point, two-rebound, two-assist performance with a block.

Attacking inside, drawing fouls

A technical foul called on Hurley with about two and a half minutes left on Saturday, arguing a foul called on Newton after one of Freemantle’s free throws already fell through, allowed Xavier two extra points and a six-point advantage that never dwindled. After the game, Hurley told reporters in Cincinnati that the word he used was ‘”unbelievable’” in reference to the wide free throw discrepancy on the game – UConn made 4-of-9 while Xavier made 23-of-28.

Hurley is right – at baseline, 22 fouls called against UConn versus the nine called on Xavier is eye-opening. There were “bad” calls and no-calls on both teams, but the style of play was very different on each side. Xavier was aggressive, driving to the paint and shooting through contact inside. Most of UConn’s shots, 37 of 67, came from outside – and seven of the Huskies’ free throws came from Hawkins, who was fouled twice on 3-point attempts.