UConn men’s basketball preview: Coach Dan Hurley breaks down roster as title defense nears

ROCKY HILL – UConn men’s basketball coach Dan Hurley received a standing ovation as he made his walk up to the dais to break down this year’s roster at Monday’s annual Middlesex County Chamber of Commerce breakfast.

Last year, coming off a second consecutive first-round disappointment in the NCAA Tournament, his entrance was received with a “quietly polite applause.” Of course, with a national championship under his belt, things change a bit.

“Listen, you reach the pinnacle, you earn that,” he said. “So I’ll take it.”

Readying the Huskies for a title defense, Hurley doesn’t have the nerves he used to at this time of the year, the season just a week away. He’s excited and likes how the team looks, especially after its second “secret scrimmage” against Harvard over the weekend.

“I think (figuring out the lineup and rotations for early games is) what the two really secret scrimmages were for us. All of the practices are evaluation tools and then obviously those closed scrimmages are probably the biggest evaluation tool for us,” he said. “With a healthy Donovan (Clingan) playing I think our first seven is really clear. I think as you get to eight, nine, 10 and who’s the odd man out on that, it’s gonna be tougher.”

Clingan, originally expected to fully recover from his foot strain in time for the Nov. 6 season-opener against Northern Arizona, is feeling great, Hurley said. He is starting to ramp things up, taking next steps and hasn’t had any setbacks. Hurley will likely, depending on word from the medical staff, start low and increase Clingan’s minutes incrementally as the early part of the season progresses.

Here is Hurley’s player-by-player breakdown of the 2023-24 Huskies:

Tristen Newton, fifth-year guard:

“A lot’s expected of Tristen Newton, a couple triple-doubles last year and had a magnificent national championship game, but we need him to play at an even higher level this year. We need like All-Big East-level play from him as a guard and to replace some of that leadership that we lost with Andre Jackson and Adama Sanogo. So Tristen Newton, if the year is gonna go the way we want it to go, (will be) a better leader and close to an all-conference-level player.”

Cam Spencer, fifth-year guard:

Cam Spencer, just the perfect addition for us with where we were at. You just lose Andre Jackson to the draft process, obviously you lose Jordan Hawkins, you lose Joey California (Calcaterra), you lose some really, really high-level shooting slash veteran players and you bring in an older guy that’s a two-way player who can really, really shoot and he’s about all the things that we’re about. Basketball is everything to him, winning and our success is everything to him and he’s like a plug-and-play guy that has got All-Big East-level abilities as a guard.”

Alex Karaban, redshirt sophomore forward:

“You could just turn over your roster every year, just go to the portal, or you could kind of bank on your ability to develop players to make big jumps when it’s their time to step up… If you’re Alex Karaban and you were a fifth starter last year, now you need to play like an all-conference player, you need to go from 9, 10 points a game to 14 points a game. Alex led us in minutes last year and I feel like he didn’t get enough credit for our success last year, he should’ve been Rookie of the Year in the league – we don’t win a lot of popularity contests at UConn, we just win championships.

“He led us in minutes last year and then just the shooting, the passing, the ability to process the game at a very high level really changed things for us offensively. And he’s gonna be an NBA player, he’s gonna be a late first-round pick someday, Alex, so enjoy him while he’s here.”

Donovan Clingan, sophomore center:

“The big fella, I think the exciting thing about Donovan is the type of person he is, obviously his impact on the court the analytics love him. As great as Adama was, analytically we were like top-2 in the country on offense when Donovan was on the court last year and top-2 in the country on defense when Donovan was on the court for his 14 minutes a game. Now when he gets to 26, 27 minutes a game, obviously we want him to maintain that level. And this is a big week in terms of his recovery, he starts to kind of ramp up some things on the court as we try to ease him back into getting ready for the season. But he’s only shown flashes of what he can do and I think his humility and his personality and the life that he brings into the locker room and on the practice court, the guy never has a bad day. And personality is so important in terms of your culture.”

Hassan Diarra, senior guard:

“We really need Hassan to be a solid veteran off the bench. Gives us a smart, savvy, veteran that’s a pest defensively and good decision-making with the ball. We need a veteran off the bench because we’re playing a lot of young players this year, so we need a vet guard.”

Samson Johnson, junior forward:

Samson’s always been one of the most talented players in the program, he’s had some bad luck with injury and then he’s just been in an incredibly talented front court where he’s been battling for minutes. He’s gonna get an opportunity to play this year, he’s been maybe our most consistent player in the two closed scrimmages I think he’s probably been our most productive player and our best player. So it’s exciting that we can have a one-two punch at center, we had Adama and Donovan last year, looks like we’re gonna have that again with Donovan and Samson this year.”

Andrew Hurley, senior guard:

“He’s great for me, and I think he’s great in the locker room because I think after I’m pretty brutal, he could kind of go in there and tell the team, ‘He’s even worse at home.’ He’s just a great kid and just having him around, in the locker room and being able to connect with the players and maybe give them a sense of the method to my madness and just kind of be a unifier with the guys and me when I’m trying to get certain messaging across. He’s a practice-able player, which is nice too, he’s good enough to get on the court and help us practice.”

Apostolos Roumoglou, sophomore forward:

“The Greek, he’s a guy who’s trying to battle, trying to fight to get on the court. There’s about seven or eight minutes behind Karaban at the four where there’s like three guys competing for that and he’s in the mix for that. Hard-playing guy with a high motor and he’s had a good impact on our team in the locker room and on the court because he’s a hard-playing guy and he’s a big personality.”

Andre Johnson Jr., sophomore guard:

“Another (player from) Bristol, a really, really quality walk-on for us, went to South Kent, and is a guy that, especially this time of year when you have training camp practices the walk-ons are so important. Because now you’re trying to rest your guys as we get ready for games, so if your walk-ons aren’t competent and they can’t play, then they’re completely useless.”

Stephon Castle, freshman guard:

“He’s physically so ready to play, but then there’s like these things that young players do that can make you lose – like they stare at the ball while their man cuts, or stare at a guy shoot the ball while they don’t block out and give up a putback, or not have two hands on the ball at all times, just like ball security and different things like that. But he’s so talented, he’s the most ready freshman that we’ve had and no one has played as well as he’s played this early in their career. And he brings with him a very high level of humility, and he’s a pleaser, like he gets sad when he’s doing bad for us. So he’s a special kid and I think he’s got the chance to have a spectacular freshman year.”

Solomon Ball, freshman guard:

Solo‘s been awesome. Solo’s got great pedigree coming in here, like all of our freshmen, but (I’m) incredibly pleasantly surprised by how well he’s shooting the ball, and he’s a super athlete. I think he’s gonna be a fan favorite very quickly just because a very explosive player and he’s like shooting the cover off the ball which is just what this roster needs losing what we lost last year. So that’s been a great development for us, he’s positioned to be maybe first guy off the bench, potentially with Samson when Donovan comes back.”

Jayden Ross, freshman forward:

“He’s got a chance to be first-round pick level talent, and probably early entry at that. He’s just getting better by the day.”

Jaylin Stewart, freshman forward:

“Our guy from Seattle, maybe the game comes easiest to him of anyone in the program, like highest level of feel and offensive skill, he’s just going through it right now. Like going through it – it’s the hardest thing he’s ever done and it’s the most things he’s ever had to think about on the court so his head’s ready to explode but if he stays with it, special, special player.”

Youssouf Singare, freshman center:

“The most unique individual that you could bring into your program, he’s almost the emotional epicenter of the team, which is a strange development because he just got here, but he’s so filled with life and spirit and you can’t tell whether he just had the worst practice of all time because he just like walks right through it. He’s gotten so much better, we had an open practice in the summer where we were nervous for him because he’s a young big kid and there’s a lot that he’s learning. But the improvement from the summer to the other night when we had the open practice was startling.”