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Preview: UConn men’s basketball vs. Seton Hall

When: 12:00 p.m. Eastern

TV: FOX

Radio: UConn Sports Network

Line: UConn -2

KenPom Predicted Score: UConn, 68-65

After a long wait, UConn men’s basketball fans can go to bed tonight knowing that they’ll wake up with that gameday feeling tomorrow. In a jam-packed slate of college hoops, UConn (8-3, 5-3) will host the Seton Hall Pirates (10-8, 7-5) tomorrow at Gampel Pavilion.

This will be the first time the two old Big East foes have met since 2013, when Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright scored 22 and 20 points apiece to lead UConn to victory. Gone are the Hungry Huskies, replaced by the Hot Sauce Huskies that have held their own in the last five-and-a-half games without star guard James Bouknight (20.3 ppg). Hurley’s squad boasts the top scoring defense in the Big East and its defensive efficiency is 28th in the country according to KenPom.

This is a particularly notable matchup for head coach Dan Hurley, who will be facing his alma mater in a Big East battle. Hurley played at Seton Hall from ‘91-’96, it’s where The Carpenter grew up, met his wife Andrea, and where his oldest son Danny attends now.

Beyond those feels, this is a huge tilt for two squads that sit right next to each other at fourth and fifth in the standings. Seton Hall is ranked no. 37 in KenPom and looking for some semblance of consistency; the Pirates had dropped three-straight before righting the ship Wednesday and blowing out Providence. UConn is no. 29 in KenPom and corrected its own course slightly with a win vs. Butler on Jan. 25, but COVID-19 pauses tend to bring rust and could derail any positive vibes being built. That said, the Huskies did have a chance to get healthier.

When Seton Hall has the rock

The most pressing matter for UConn will be containing senior forward Sandro Mamukelashvili, a preseason All-Big East First Team selection. The 6’11 ‘Mamu’ has lived up to the hype this year, averaging 17.7 ppg along with seven rebounds and three assists per game. The Tbilisi, Georgia native shoots 33% from three and is a matchup nightmare because he’s also comfortable banging in the post. Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard will run the entire offense through Mamu at the high post because he’s such an adept passer that will pick out and abuse a missed rotation.

UConn’s pick-and-roll defense will have to be up to par. Will they have the screener’s defender help guard the ball-handler (the Whaley specialty) before returning to the screener? Or will they switch on everything to avoid giving him open looks from three?

Mamu can get his shot off quickly but also is a train rolling to the basket. The trick will be controlled closeouts because Mamu has the ball-handling and playmaking ability to attack on the bounce. Seton Hall also gets creative using the forward as a screener.

How does UConn stop this? By harassing the heck out of Seton Hall’s point guard Shavar Reynolds (Harvard transfer Bryce Aiken is hobbled with an ankle injury). RJ Cole and Jalen Gaffney need to disrupt the initiation of Seton Hall’s offense. And then of course there’s Whaley’s legendary hedging and ability to poke the ball out of a guard’s hand. All of UConn’s frontcourt will have to hedge like that. And the event of mismatches, UConn must recover quickly enough —a much-improved trait this year — or withstand the size disadvantage with physicality.

But it’s not just Mamu. Defenses keying in on Mamu has opened it up nicely for two upperclassmen; 6’6 swing Jared Rhoden is 10th in the conference in scoring (14.7ppg), while Myles ‘Organic’ Cale is 19th (12.5).

Isaiah Whaley —who leads the Big East in blocks per game (2.8) is first in line to defend Mamu and will need discipline in not biting on pump fakes. If Whaley finds himself in foul trouble, all of UConn’s frontcourt will have to stay down, be physical, and make sure to put a body on him when shots go up. The Huskies still lead the Big East in rebounding margin (5.9) and blocked shots (5.2), so winning those battles will be critical.

When UConn has the rock

The Pirates held Providence to just 43 points earlier this week after giving up more than 80 to Creighton and Villanova. If Seton Hall has tightened the screws defensively, a Bouk-less UConn will need someone to be their bailout guy. The matchup between Tyrese Martin and Seton Hall’s Myles Cale — Hall’s best on-ball defender — will be one heckuva physical battle to watch.

If Martin is having trouble, can RJ Cole and Tyler Polley step up? Seton Hall is dead last in the Big East in three-point defense. This could be the game Polley breaks out of his mini-slump. Maybe Andre Jackson can provide an extra playmaking boost.

Expectations on the offensive end should be tempered for UConn’s frontcourt as a whole. Paired with Mamu is the 7’2 Ike Obiagu and together they might be the only frontcourt that UConn’s doesn’t have a size advantage over. That doesn’t mean Hurley should stop feeding the post and trying to get Mamu in foul trouble.

A lineup of Cole, Brendan Adams, Martin, Whaley, and Sanogo could turn the tide, with the ability to swap in Polley for Whaley depending on what you need. Those are UConn’s most effective unit according to HoopsExplorer.com and provide a little bit of everything. Switchability (Mamu sets screens like a hippo), size, and an inside-out balance.

Keys to the Game

Fight Night—Whaley vs. Mamu

Whoever wins this matchup wins the game. It’s that simple. That doesn’t mean Whaley needs to post Mamu-like scoring numbers, but if an aggressive yet fundamentally disciplined Whaley can throw Mamu off his game, UConn will have thrown a big wrench into the Pirates’ sometimes lethal pick-and-roll offense.

Wanted: Tyler Polley’s Scoring

The senior sniper hasn’t hit double digits since DePaul. It’s not enough to get defenses to forget about him, especially when James Bouknight is out. If Hurley can carve up a few open looks for Polley and he knocks them down, it will make everyone’s day a little brighter. Except for Kevin Willard, who is definitely not mad about UConn joining the Big East.

Prediction

UConn’s pick-and-roll defense muzzles Mamu, and UConn gets just enough offense to win 69-63, and we’ll all have a nice Saturday.

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