The Connecticut Huskies face St. John’s in a game destined to bring up nostalgia from the St. John’s fans. UConn has not played St. John’s in eight years — since UConn and the Big East name parted ways.
The onetime member of the Big East has come back to enjoy a more basketball-centric conference that affords more game to game competition, and due to a cancellation in December, this will be the first meeting of longtime foes. The Huskies are once again rolling behind Dan Hurley — a coach that many St. John’s fans have often clamored for as the leader of the program.
The Huskies have a bunch of young talent, and St. John’s has a large challenge in front of them on two days’ rest after the Marquette loss. But the Johnnies’ style could be an x-factor against a Connecticut team that is prone to fouling and turning the ball over.
Who: St. John’s Red Storm (7-7, 2-6 Big East) vs. Connecticut Huskies (7-1, 4-1 Big East)
When: Monday, January 18, 2021, 2:30 PM
Where: Gampel Pavilion, Storrs, CT
Last matchup: Steve Lavin’s squad, led by Jakarr Sampson and efforts from D`Angelo Harrison and Marc-Antoine Bourgault led the Red Storm in a win over the Huskies in 2013. St. John’s went 2-8 the rest of that season.
The Huskies may be missing star guard James Bouknight (elbow injury) and freshman wing from Albany, NY, Andre Jackson (broken wrist), but UConn has a deep bench of talent to lean on, and a strong defense.
UConn is holding opponents to just over 0.90 points per possession, top 20 in the country. Teams are shooting 29% from beyond the arc and finding three-pointers hard to come by. And the team’s length makes scoring inside difficult.
On offense, expect to see a lot of screens and dribble handoffs, and passing from just inside the arc to the paint. Defenders near the perimeter will want to bother ballhandlers enough to make passing inside hard. The Huskies want to concentrate their offense in the paint. All that movement and action, however, does not lead to many assists; UConn still generates a lot of offense off runouts, putbacks, or off the dribble.
Up front, the triumvirate of freshman Adama Sanogo (#21), senior Isaiah Whaley (#5) and senior Josh Carlton (#25) hold down the paint. Each is a solid rebounder; Whaley gets the most time of the three, while Sanogo, while his minutes may be limited, is a very good athlete.
All three power the Huskies’ top-20 shot blocking and interior defense. None of the three is a go-to scorer, though Isaiah Whaley scored 15 to push the Huskies past Marquette. Whaley is allowed to shoot long two-pointers, and has had some success — as has Adama Sanogo. Sanogo and Carlton are foul-prone.
In fact, since James Bouknight has been sidelined, the scoring has fallen to wings Tyler Polley (#12) and Tyrese Martin (#4), plus guard RJ Cole (#1).
Polley is a talented three-point scorer who can get shots off the dribble or function as a catch-and-shoot wing. At 6’9” he can see over defenses. He gets his shot off quickly and prefers to shoot from deep. He also has only been to the free throw line enough to take 11 attempts this season.
Tyrese Martin has a lot of hustle on both ends of the floor. The transfer from Rhode Island been the team’s best offensive rebounder, and has active hands on defense.
RJ Cole, a transfer from Howard, may miss a number of shots inside the arc. But Cole is an opportunistic ballhawk, a slashing guard who can draw fouls, and a solid three-point threat.
Also in the backcourt are sophomore guard Jalen Gaffney (#0), who is quick-footed defensively and fast enough to draw fouls; and Brendan Adams (#10), a slasher and defender who is likely to get starts in Bouknight’s absence.
Keys to the Game
Draw opportunities. St. John’s has shown a tendency to avoid the paint against bigger teams. That tendency makes sense; few of the Red Storm players have been effective against size, and the spacing/ shooting has not done driving players many favors or delivered one-on-one opportunities.
But the Red Storm have to play a smart, diversified game on offense — drawing offensive rebounds and fouls off of hustle plays, finding mismatches, and moving the ball around for good jump shots for Julian Champagnie, Vince Cole, and Greg Williams Jr.
Unrelenting defense. The Red Storm have to keep playing defense through the shot clock. The Huskies will utilize a lot of weaves and ball movement to get their star players free; the defense has to stay crisp, rotate well, and make fewer mistakes.
Contain. UConn’s halfcourt offensive struggles have recently been covered by the ability of their athletic players to score in transition and create opportunities off of turnovers and blocks. St. John’s has to make them work for their scoring chances.
St. John’s has the defense and the shooting to defeat UConn, but right now, the team is not playing the kind of synchronized basketball that would be needed to take out the Huskies.
UConn wins 81-72.