Well, that was a hell of a Thanksgiving yesterday, wasn’t it? The 18th-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide (5-0; Kenpom: 11; T-Rank: 10) flexed its muscles in a convincing 81-70 romp over the 12th-ranked Michigan State Spartans. The reward? Oh, just a match-up with a fellow undefeated and ranked opponent, the 20th-ranked UConn Huskies (6-0; Kenpom: 12; T-Rank: 30). UConn opened up the Phil Knight Invitational in an even more dominant fashion than Alabama did last night, blasting the Oregon Ducks 83-59. The Huskies actually set a school record for made three-pointers with 17.
Dominance has been a theme for UConn all year, as they’ve won their first six matchups by an average margin of nearly 30 points per game. They are 9th in the country in eFG% (59.1%) and 17th in the nation in eFG% allowed (41.0%). It’s been a bit of a surprise, really. The Huskies lost four of their top six players from a year ago, but Dan Hurley has kept things rolling so far in 2022.
That being said, after last night’s performance, where Brandon Miller asserted himself into the conversation, not just as the best freshman in the country but as arguably the best player in the country, the sky is looking like the limit for Nate Oats’ squad this year. Keep in mind that we still haven’t even seen Dom Welch yet, and that Jahvon Quinerly is still figuring out his role in the rotation. I’ve learned to remain cautiously optimistic about Alabama basketball over the years, but I’m about to throw that caution to the wind if this keeps up.
Will it though? That’s the big question today. UConn is another elite team and program, so the Tide needs to come out ready to roll.
POINT 6’5 Tristen Newton (13.2 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 4.3 APG, 79.6 DRtg)
GUARD 6’4 Nahiem Alleyne (8.7 PPG, 1.5 APG, 1.3 RPG, 89.2 DRtg)
GUARD 6’5 Jordan Hawkins (12.3 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 2.0 APG, 81.1 DRtg)
WING 6’8 Alex Karaban (10.2 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 2.0 APG, 86.2 DRtg)
POST 6’9 Adama Sanogo (19.8 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 75.7 DRtg)
The Huskies are actually very similar to Alabama - big, athletic (mostly) newcomers that have gelled extremely well and dominated their competition early on. Now, Alabama will be by far the best team they have played all year, but these are some impressive numbers. They’ve got four guys averaging double figures with three more just below that mark. Everyone on the team has great-to-elite defensive ratings.
It starts with their trio of big guards, two of which are new to the program. Tristen Newton transferred in from East Carolina, where he led the Pirates in scoring. He hasn’t had many issues in that department in Storrs, either (40.4%/39.1%/76.2%), but he’s also sporting a strong 26.0% AST%. Nahiem Alleyne came over from Virginia Tech, where he was known as a sharpshooter (38.7% 3P%). He’s struggled a bit in that regard for UConn (41.7%/28.0%/100%), but he’s likely due for some positive regression soon. Jordan Hawkins is one of the few returners from last season, and he’s been rock solid for the Huskies all year.
In the frontcourt, freshman Alex Karaban might not be Brandon Miller, but his profile is similar - a big wing who can dribble (11.5% AST%) and shoot (48.7%/38.5%/72.2%). He joins Adama Sonogo, the one big piece of last season’s squad who stuck around for another year. Sanogo is one of the best post players in the country. His defense is elite, and his ability to stretch the floor (68.1%/66.7%/86.4%) makes him a matchup nightmare.
Off of the Bench
GUARD 6’2 Hassan Diarra (3.8 PPG, 4.0 APG, 2.7 RPG, 82.3 DRtg)
GUARD 6’3 Joey Calcaterra (9.0 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 2.3 APG, 82.2 DRtg)
GUARD 6’5 Andre Jackson (1.7 PPG, 4.7 APG, 2.7 RPG, 76.6 DRtg)
POST 7’2 Donovan Clingan (9.5 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 2.8 BPG, 65.9 DRtg)
Unlike Michigan State, UConn has a nice bag of players that they can reach into for help off of the bench. These guys are deep. If Hassan Diarra’s name sounds familiar to you, it should. The former Texas A&M Aggie was a four-star and a major get out of New York for Buzz Williams when he first arrived in College Station. So far this year, Diarra has been a fantastic back-up point, dishing out assists at a 28.1% rate. His shooting isn’t the best (36.4%/22.2%/41.7%), but he’s a legit two-way player.
Joey Calcaterra is a graduate transfer from San Diego - another sharpshooter that Hurley poached from the transfer portal - and he’s been en fuego to start the year (63.3%/57.1%/66.7%). Andre Jackson has actually seen his minutes shrink in the rotation from last year (he was one of the two guys I referenced earlier that returned from UConn’s top six), but it’s not due to him underperforming. Jackson has had elite metrics on defense and in assist rate, where he leads the team at 34.8%. Finally, you have to make note of freshman big, Donovan Clingan. He is the next great post player at UConn, which has a long history of producing at that position. The 7’2 true freshman is an absolute hoss on defense. That 65.9 DRtg is unheard of (and probably unsustainable). But his 18.9% BLK% may be even more impressive. Oh, and he rebounds at 24.4% clip. This guy is a beast.
Three Keys to Victory
- Battle in the Post. With Sanogo and Clingan patrolling the paint for the Huskies, Noah Clowney, Charles Bediako, and Noah Gurley are going to have to come ready to play today. Time to put on those big boy britches, fellas. UConn is understandably one of the best in the country in 2P% allowed (27th at 41.8%) and rebounding (41st in OREB% and 28th in OREB% allowed). On the offensive end, Clingan is a load and Sanogo can play out on the wing with the ball as well, which can be a nightmare combo if they are on the floor at the same time. Still, Alabama is leading the country in 2P% allowed and second in OREB%, so it’s not like they can’t match up. Neither team has seen bigs like each other, although Oregon does have a couple of big guys who got punked by the pair of Huskies yesterday.
- Take Care of the Ball. Alabama had an almost 2:1 margin in assists to turnovers yesterday against the Spartans. It’s no coincidence that the Tide rolled in that game. Turnovers seemed to be the one true weakness holding this team back, so if they can get that flipped, watch out. UConn, for their part, has been really good at turning teams over so far this year (36th in the country in TO% forced at 23.9%.
- Get the Ball to Brandon Miller. We’ve got a legitimate superstar, folks. Brandon Miller has a silly stat line (47.8%/52.8%/80.0%; 13.5% REB%; 11.5% AST%; 83.3 DRtg). NBA draft ‘experts’ are climbing on top of themselves running to Twitter to talk him up after last night’s performance. Good things happen when Brandon Miller has the ball. We’ve got a lot of good players this season, and I certainly don’t want Miller forcing it all game, but Oats and company have to continue to scheme up ways to get him open. He is lethal with the ball in his hands.
This has the makings of a cataclysmic matchup tonight. Both Alabama and UConn are probably under ranked right now, even at 18 and 20, respectively. Winner likely gets #1 North Carolina in the Phil Knight Invitational Championship Game. Stakes don’t get much higher than this at this point in the season.
The game tips off a bit earlier tonight at 8:30 PM CST, and it will once again be broadcast on ESPN (provided some terrible college football game doesn’t run over).