Dan Hurley says bench depth will make or break season as UConn men’s basketball practices begin for 2023-24

STORRS -– Dan Hurley’s wife Andrea is tasked with making cupcakes to celebrate the birthdays of players and staff in the UConn men’s basketball program.

Some days, when practice doesn’t meet Hurley’s expectations, the cupcakes will stay in the fridge. They may even stay there until they’re no good and she has to make them all over again. But on Tuesday, as practices began for the 2023-24 season and two staffers celebrated birthdays, the team earned its sweets.

Hurley feels his group is ahead of where it was last year, before it opened the season with 14 straight wins and went onto its dominant NCAA Tournament run.

He sees returners Alex Karaban, Donovan Clingan and Tristen Newton, along with Rutgers transfer Cam Spencer, as players who could average about 14-16 points per game. “It’s gonna have to be sacrifice with that group and a willingness to let it be someone else’s night,” he said.

“This whole season for us is going to come down to the bench. My best teams always have that depth, you saw how fresh we were in March last year because of the depth. I just think that our starting five is going to be as good as anyone’s, it’s ‘can we get the bench?'”

The Huskies relied heavily on reserves like Joey Calcaterra, Nahiem Alleyne, Clingan and Hassan Diarra for production as they often played nine-deep last year. Now with Calcaterra graduated, Alleyne at St. John’s and Clingan a focal point in the starting lineup, it will be Diarra and junior big man Samson Johnson headlining the bench group that will mostly consist of freshmen.

“All our freshmen, they’re gonna play for the most part,” Hurley said. “If they’re not a starter they’re gonna have an opportunity to play impact minutes. The freshmen that are playing impact minutes for us, if they’re not starting this year we’re gonna expect them to start as sophomores. … We have a couple freshmen I imagine are going to be in a similar situation like Jordan (Hawkins) and Andre Jackson (when) they were key players as freshmen and then things opened up.”

So far, while the depth is a question alongside leadership from the returners, Hurley has been happy with what he’s seen.

“The way Solo (Ball played) today, Hass (Diarra) was great and has been really good. Samson looks great, Jayden Ross has just been an incredible surprise, he’s so far ahead of where we thought he’d be. J Stu (Jaylin Stewart) is catching up,” he said. “We’ve got the pieces there to potentially put a bench together if those are the guys coming off the bench, but there’s competition for, you know, I think we played nine guys easily last year and even got 10 in at some points, so there’s roles and opportunity there to be won.”

The Huskies, of course, also have McDonald’s All-American Stephon Castle to work into the fold. Castle is likely competing for the fifth starting spot.

UConn was helped out by the 10 extra practices granted by the NCAA because of their August tour to Europe. The trip provided a unique opportunity to bond and for the newcomers to start getting acclimated in game settings, so now in full practices the team has a head start on what it needs to focus on.

“For the veteran guys I think it’s leadership, especially myself using my voice more and a couple other players using their voice more,” Karaban said. “For the younger guys it’s just (being) willing to give everything they’ve got during the whole entire practice, like don’t get stuck at a wall. And then just continue to pay attention to detail because there’s a lot of new stuff making the high school to college transition, so just making sure they understand all of the concepts and are ready to go.”

Five-star big man visiting during First Night

Patrick Ngongba, a top 20 Class of 2024 prospect, will visit Storrs on Oct. 13, the day of First Night, according to 24/7 High School Hoops.

Ngongba, a 6-foot-10 center, has reportedly already visited Michigan and has other visits set up. He has UConn in his top eight schools alongside Kansas, Providence, Indiana, Duke, Kansas State and Kentucky.

24/7 High School Hoops described Ngongba as “versatile” with “great touch in the paint” and “can also knock down shots from the outside.” From Fairfax, Virginia, Ngongba is a cousin of 2024 UConn commit Isaiah Abraham, who is also expected to be present at First Night.

UConn hosted the No. 1 overall prospect in the 2024 Class, Cooper Flagg, this past weekend. Contrary to previous reports, Flagg did make an appearance at the Huskies’ football game against Duke on Saturday and took a few pictures with fans. Hurley and staff have landed two commits in the class, Abraham and guard Ahmad Nowell.