UConn men ready to take on tough tests in Phil Knight Invitational
Early season tournaments usually reveal a lot about a college basketball team.
Especially one like the Phil Knight Invitational in Portland, Ore.
No. 20 UConn (5-0) will be competing in a loaded field that also includes No. 1 North Carolina, No. 12 Michigan State and No. 18 Alabama as well as Oregon, Villanova, Iowa State and Portland. Six of those teams, including the Huskies, qualified for the NCAA tournament last season.
The Huskies start off by playing Oregon, their first of three games in four days, at 8 p.m. (ESPN2) Thursday at the Moda Center. Then they’ll face either Michigan State or Alabama Friday and finish up on Sunday against a yet to be determined opponent.
Odds are all three PKI opponents will be stiffer competition than any of UConn’s first five games during which it won by an average of 30.2 points against mid-major teams.
Coach Dan Hurley believes his team is ready for the challenges ahead.
“In general, I’ve seen a team that’s going to be able to weather storms and play through adversity,” Hurley said earlier this week. “Being able to play the closed scrimmages, especially against somebody the quality of a Virginia, we got a chance to see what a top team looks like. We have a number of players that have played against top competition.
“I just think this team right now needs to play some really, really challenging games so the team can learn and grow and develop a cohesion and go through some periods of time where you get big wins and you have some brutal losses and you form a strong team and camaraderie.”
Oregon (2-2), which is shorthanded due to injuries especially in the backcourt, appears to be a good matchup for UConn.
The Huskies have a deep rotation of guards that they can use to their advantage.
“We’ve got a lot of different types of weapons on the perimeter,” Hurley said.
The interesting battle will be in the frontcourt.
The Ducks, who will have the crowd on their side, feature one of the biggest frontcourts that the Huskies will face this season. N’Faly Dante, a 6-foot-11 senior, is the anchor, averaging 14.8 points, leading his team in points (14.8), rebounds (nine) and blocks (two) per game. Sophomore Nate Bittle and freshman reserve Kel`el Ware both are 7-footers.
They’re also battle-tested, coming off a 66-56 loss against No. 3 Houston on Sunday.
Hurley feels pretty darn good about his big men, junior Adama Sanogo and freshman Donovan Clingan who are averaging a combined 31 points and 14.4 rebounds. Both players bring something different to the court.
“It’s huge,” Hurley said of having two quality centers. “Teams have to prepare for our center position and they’re both two different types of players and the spacing they create. The way this team is constituted forces people to pick their poison.
“Adama is really, really difficult to deal with in one-on-one situations. When Donovan plays and he gets in the ball screen game and rolls to the rim, he puts the other team in a bad situation to either give up a lob dunk or give up a three.”
But they’ll be facing physically stronger, more athletic and talented opponents in the PKI than in the first five games.
And that’s fine with them.
“This is what we’ve been waiting for through these five games,” Clingan said. “We’ve got to go out there execute and play together for the full 40 minutes because Oregon is not going to let up in the second half at all. We’ve got to go out and play well for 40 minutes.”
Last year, UConn benefited from playing in an early season tournament. At the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas in late November, the Huskies scored one their best wins of the season by beating nationally-ranked Auburn in double overtime, then lost to Michigan State and defeated Virginia Commonwealth.
The experience gave the Huskies a big boost of confidence and momentum.
Now they hope competing in the PKI will have a similar positive impact.
Thursday’s game kicks off a long and difficult stretch in their schedule, with the exception of a game against Long Island on Dec. 10.
UConn will play non-conference games against Oklahoma State (Dec. 1) and at Florida (Dec. 7) before heading into Big East play.
“Twenty-five of the next 26 games are going to be very, very high level games,” Hurley said.
No. 20 UCONN vs. OREGON
Location: Moda Center, Portland, Ore
Tip: 8 p.m. (ESPN2)
Records: UConn 5-0, Oregon 2-2
Last game: UConn beat Delaware State, 95-60, on Sunday; Oregon lost to No. 3 Houston, 66-56, Sunday
Probable starters: UConn, 6-5 sr. guard Tristen Newton (11.2 pts, 5.4 rebs, 4 assists), 6-4 sr. guard Nahiem Alleyne (9.6 pts), 6-5 so. guard Jordan Hawkins (10.3 pts), 6-8 r-fr. forward Alex Karaban (11 pts, 3.6 rebs), 6-9 jr. forward Adama Sanogo (21.4 pts, 8 rebs)
Oregon, 6-2 jr. guard Keeshwan Barthelemy (8.5 pts), 6-5 sr. guard Will Richardson (10 pts, 4.3 rebs, 4 assists), 7-0 so. forward Nate Bittle (9.3 pts, 5 rebs), 6-8 sr. forward Quincy Guerrier (7pts, 4 rebs), 6-11 sr. center N’Faly Dante (14.8 pts, 9 rebs)
Noteworthy: First of three games in four days in Phil Knight Invitational. … Series: Tied 1-1, with UConn winning 71-63 Nov. 2017 in PKI in Portland and losing 79-69 Nov. 2016 in Maui Invitational. … Oregon’s wins vs. Florida A&M and Montana State, loss to UC Irvine. … Ducks with only two players averaging in double figures, UConn has four. … Oregon hit hard by injuries, with four players missing the first four games. Barthelemy left Houston game early with ankle injury. … Frontcourt play a strength for Ducks, who out-rebound foes by 11 per game. … Top reserve: 7-foot freshman center Kel`el Ware (7.5 pts, 5 rebs). … Oregon averages 68.3 pts, allows 57.8 and shoots just 26.3 percent from 3-pt. range and 60.7 percent from foul line. … First game against a quality opponent this season for the Huskies. … Hot: Sanogo shooting 67.7 percent from the field. Cold: Alleyne 7 for 23 from 3-pt. range. … With a win, UConn will be off to its best start under Hurley, who’s in his fifth season. … Injury update: Samson Johnson (foot) out indefinitely. … Huskies last played in PKI in 2017, going 1-2. … Next up: UConn faces either No. 12 Michigan State or No. 18 Alabama Friday in the next round Friday night at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Portland.
– Gavin Keefe