UConn men will face tough tests in Empire Classic, starting Sunday with Indiana
Life is about to get considerably more challenging for the UConn men’s basketball program.
No more feasting on overmatched opponents.
That’s fine with the fifth-ranked Huskies.
They’re looking forward to testing themselves against quality competition in the upcoming weeks.
First up, Indiana (3-0).
The two teams will battle at 1 p.m. Sunday at Madison Square Garden, billed as the World’s Most Famous Arena, in New York.
“The big stage starts Sunday,” sophomore Donovan Clingan said. “We’ll see what everyone is about and we’ll see what this team is really about.”
In the two-day, four team Empire Classic, UConn (3-0) will have a chance to win its first championship of the season, something that coach Dan Hurley places high value on. No. 19 Texas faces Louisville in Sunday’s second game. Winners will play for the title on Monday at 7 p.m. and losers in the consolation game at 4:30.
The Huskies are certainly no stranger to a big stage, having captured the program’s fifth national championship last season. It will be interesting to see how the freshmen react to the bright spotlight.
“You worry about the freshmen, how their nerves will be at MSG,” Hurley said. “But everyone else that returns played in front of 75,000 people (in the national championship game) and performed at their best level the whole last March and April. So there shouldn’t be nerves for us.
“We know it’s a great challenge and we’re going to try to advance in a tournament to have a chance to win a championship, which is what we’re all here to do at this point of the year.”
Hurley will be counting on some freshmen more than others, like Solo Ball, who will fill in in the starting backcourt until Stephon Castle returns. Castle is expected to be out at least two weeks recovering from a knee injury.
For the Huskies to leave MSG on Monday with two quality wins, they’ll have to receive standout performances and leadership from their veterans.
“If Tristen (Newton) and Cam (Spencer) play at an all-conference level and Donovan does what he’s capable of doing and Alex (Karaban) does what he’s capable of doing, you feel like you’ve got four guys that could potentially play at or near an all-conference level, and you should be in good shape even with Steph’s situation,” Hurley said.
The outcome may be decided in the frontcourt, where Indiana’s strength lies. The Hoosiers have one of the top frontcourts in the Big Ten.
Sophomore Kel’el Ware, a 7-foot center, and 6-9 sophomore forward Malik Renau are the leading scorers, averaging 18.3 and 15 points per game, respectively.
Ware, a transfer, is a familiar name to the Huskies.
Playing for Oregon last season, Ware scored a career-high 18 points and had nine rebounds in an 83-59 loss to UConn in the Phil Knight Invitational on Nov. 24 in Portland, Oregon.
“Malik and Kel’el, they’re outstanding players,” Karaban said. “They’re All-Big Ten players and they’re playing like that right now these past three games. And we have tremendous respect for them. So we know it’s going to be a challenge. We’ve just got to be ready.”
To advance to the Empire Classic championship game, the Huskies will have to do almost everything better than their last three games.
Hurley was upset about his team’s toughness, leadership and defensive play in Tuesday’s rout of Mississippi Valley State. And he continued to deliver that message during practice.
“Make it easier for the younger guys and go out there and play harder and play better,” Newton said. “We didn’t play well as a group last game. … We have to go out there and play hard and just adjust.”
While it is still early in the season, the Huskies are treating the Empire Classic as an important proving ground. They’ll know more about where they stand when it is over.
Karaban remembers what winning the Phil Knight Invitational did for the team’s confidence and growth last year about this time.
“Winning our first championship as a group, it definitely gave us momentum and just knowing how good we were,” Karaban said.
The Huskies should have the crowd on their side.
UConn’s rabid fan base shows up in force for any game at Madison Square Garden.
“MSG is the best arena in the world,” Clingan said. “Call that Storrs South, so it’s always like a third home court. We know we get the fan support there. We’ve just got to bring our game and show everyone what we can do.”
Location: Madison Square Garden, New York
Tip time: 1 p.m. (ESPN)
Records: UConn 3-0, Indiana 3-0
Last game: UConn beat Mississippi Valley State, 87-53, Tuesday; Indiana defeated Wright State, 89-80, Thursday
Series: UConn leads 6-4, losing the last meeting 57-54 on Dec. 10, 2019
Probable starters: UConn, 6-5 graduate guard Tristen Newton (15.3 pts, 7.3 rebs, 4.6 assists), 6-6 graduate guard Cam Spencer (15 pts, 5 assists), 6-3 fr. guard Solo Ball (6.3 pts, 2.3 rebs), 6-8 r-so. forward Alex Karaban (17 pts, 6.3 rebs), 7-2 so. center Donovan Clingan (15 pts, 6.7 rebs, 2.7 blks)
Indiana, 6-3 r-sr. guard Xavier Johnson (14 pts, 2.7 rebs), 6-5 sr. guard Trey Galloway (12 pts, 3.7 assists), 6-8 fr. forward Mackenzie Mgbako (6.3 pts, 3.3 rebs), 6-9 so. forward Malik Reneau (15 pts, 5.3 rebs, 4 assists), 7-0 so. center Kel’el Ware (18.3 pts, 10 rebs, 2 blks)
Noteworthy: UConn competing in the Empire Classic for the fifth time, last winning the event in 2013, knocking off Indiana. … First of four regular-season games this season at MSG for the Huskies. … Indiana’s wins vs. Florida Gulf Coast, Army and Wright St. … Top reserve: 6-2 fr. guard Gabe Cupps (3.3 pts, 2 rebs). … Hoosiers held all three opponents under 70 points. … In his 3rd season, coach Mike Woodson is 47-26. … Indiana starters account for 65.3 of the team’s 76.7 pts. … Hoosiers converting just 27.5% from 3-pt range. … Ware and Clingan both on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award watch list … Hot: UConn is shooting 54.7% from the field, averaging 96.3 points. Cold: Ball shooting 28.6% (6-for-21) from the field. … Huskies have won 20 straight non-conference games. … UConn will play its 129th game at MSG, more than any other venue except its two home courts. Huskies are 68-60 there. … Injury update: Fr. Stephon Castle (knee) out. … Castle connections: Castle and injured Indiana freshman Jakai Newton are both from Covington, Georgia, and attended Newton High School. He and Mgbako were 2023 McDonald’s All-American teammates. … Up next: UConn plays either Texas or Louisville on Monday in the Empire Classic.
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