UConn head coach Dan Hurley walked into Tuesday’s postgame press conference frustrated with the effort of his older players in an 87-53 win over Mississippi Valley State. It wasn’t until he was asked about the program’s 20-game nonconference winning streak (all by double digits) that he broke a smile.
“Thanks for saying that because I’m so mad right now,” he said, the smirk turning into a hearty chuckle. “It was just great to hear something nice.”
Playing without freshman guard Stephon Castle, UConn did not look at all like the 45.5-point favorites they were coming into the game.
Had it not been for Cam Spencer’s 19-point first half, the score at the break “would have been scary,” Hurley said. Alex Karaban had to be subbed out less than four minutes in after picking up a pair of quick fouls. Almost two minutes later, as poor on-ball defense and rebounding, plus more foul trouble (including a technical) for Tristen Newton, left the Huskies with just a 14-7 lead, Spencer was the only starter left on the court.
UConn eventually settled down, extending its lead to as many as 22 points in the first half and coming away with the 35-point win.
Here are some takeaways:
New year, new bench
The bench is what made UConn a truly dominant outfit on its way to last year’s national championship. When the starters came out, experienced players like Joey Calcaterra and Nahiem Alleyne, plus stud freshman Donovan Clingan, were able to maintain the level of play on both ends of the court, at times even raising it.
With Calcaterra graduated and in the G League, Alleyne moving on to St. John’s and Clingan vaulted into a starting role, this year’s bench (with the exception of Hassan Diarra) lacks that experience.
The Huskies had all five starters in double-figure scoring for the second straight game on Tuesday, but only got a combined 11 points from the bench (4 for 7 from the field) and Jaylin Stewart’s two points were the only from the freshman reserves.
“It’s gonna take those guys time,” Hurley said. “When they checked into the game we were frustrated and we weren’t playing well. They got on the court into an uncomfortable situation and the responsibility of Tristen and Donovan and Alex, and obviously Cam did his part tonight, is making it easier for these freshmen to go out there and play well, not put us behind the 8-ball and then they come into the game and things aren’t going well.”
Any given night
First it was Karaban, then Newton and now Spencer as the latest UConn starter to step up and lead the way with 20-plus points. There’s no question that projected lottery picks Castle and Clingan, when healthy, have the ability to do the same.
“When Steph is in there you’ve got five guys that are potentially gonna be 11 to 15 (points) a game, and there’s not a lot of teams in the country that have that,” Hurley said. “I thought Samson took a little step back (Tuesday) with his physically and force, but we know what we’ve got with the starting five, it’s can we develop these young guys, can we develop the bench?
“But that starting five, I think the strength of this team is gonna be (that) we’ve got five guys that can get 18 to 25 on a given night when they’re all healthy and out there.”
Castle’s knee injury doesn’t appear to be long-term concern
The team found out Castle was injured on Sunday after he slipped on the court in the second half of Saturday’s game against Stonehill and hurt his knee. Hurley said there will be an update on Thursday or Friday relative to the severity of the injury and how much time the touted freshman will miss.
“I don’t think were nervous about this being a long-term thing, we think it’s pretty minor. If he’s gonna miss time, it won’t be much, but it’s just kind of evolved within the last 24-36 hours,” Hurley said, knocking on wood.
On short notice, Solo Ball made his first collegiate start in place of his classmate and finished with 10 points despite a rough, 3 for 12 shooting night.
“I think Solo, when he gets comfortable, is gonna give us tremendous shooting and straight-line driving. There’s things obviously at the defensive end that are getting exposed that he’s just got to learn and grow from,” Hurley said. “But he’s got great pedigree and he’s got great makeup, he’s gonna be really good for us this year.”
Huskies have to find toughness quickly
UConn struggled on the glass, especially in the early stages of Tuesday’s game, as Mississippi Valley State grabbed six offensive rebounds in the first nine minutes of the game. The visitors finished with 14 offensive boards.
“What went on on the backboard, especially early and at different times in the second half, it was something we have not seen for a couple of years here. I thought we looked soft,” Hurley said.
Clingan and Johnson had just five rebounds a piece after combining for just eight in Saturday’s game against Stonehill, seven for Clingan, one for Johnson. Clingan took accountability after both games, recognizing that he and the team need to get better on the glass and on defense, not allowing easy makes inside. That they need to be tougher – and fast, the competition starts to stiffen this weekend.
“I just think that’s a big question about this team. When you looked at that team last year, Andre Jackson was a dog, Adama (Sanogo) was a dog, Joey off the bench played kind of like a dog, Nahiem was a two-way tough player – we lost a lot of very physical, tone-setting players,” Hurley said.
“Just to see us on the backboard in the first half of that game today and even the second half of the Stonehill game, on the glass, those physicality plays… We gave up 32% from the field, we had 20 assists, we shot 54%, we made 11 3s and I’m pissed because that’s not championship-caliber basketball.”