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Sanogo can't wait for a family reunion in Mali before returning to UConn

Adama Sanogo can't wait to go home to Mali this week for the first time in nearly a year.

Being roughly 4,000 miles away from his family hasn't easy for the 20-year-old, but Sanogo continues to lean on his UConn basketball family, especially during challenging times in recent months.

"We're his lifeline here," coach Dan Hurley said last week. "We're more than just his coaches; We're a part of his family. ... We've got to be there for him. He's had a lot going on. He's had to make the decision on whether to turn pro and obviously go make money for his family, so he had the pressure of making the decision coupled with the tragedy with his family.

"So, he's had a lot going on."

The tragedy that Hurley referred to happened a few months ago in Mali, which is located in West Africa. The family's house was badly damaged during severe storms.

UConn set up a GoFundMe page, which is no longer active, to raise money. The school is allowed to help out in the case of a natural disaster, but just to cover the cost of the damage.

Sanogo politely declined to talk in detail about the situation, but appreciates everyone's support.

"I want to thank everybody that donated money for my family," he said. "Everything is good now."

The upcoming trip to see his parents, Awa Traore and Cheickne Sanogo, for a couple weeks will be a nice break for Sanogo, who also has five older sisters and one younger brother.

Hurley believes the trip will recharge and reinvigorate Sanogo.

"He's going to have a chance to go home and do some things and see family, so it will be good for him," Hurley said. "He'll come back and get ready to lead us to a huge year."

Sanogo is poised to have a headline-grabbing junior year.

He's coming off a superb sophomore season during which he earned All-Big East first team honors and was a top five finalist for the Kareem Abudul-Jabbar Center of the Year award. He averaged 14.8 points and a team-best 8.8 rebounds while leading the Huskies to an NCAA tournament berth.

The Huskies ended the season with a disappointing first-round loss to New Mexico State.

"We did a good job, but the ending was not good," Sanogo said. "This year, we want to come back and accomplish more things and get a ring."

Sanogo's expected to be a strong contender for All-Big East Player of the Year honors. He embraces the expectations that come with that label.

"That motivates me to go hard every day," Sanogo said.

And don't rule out Sanogo earning All-American status. He's extremely driven and dedicated to his craft.

"He's got a lot of pride," Hurley said. "He comes from a great pedigree. His family is just high achieving, hard working people."

One of the hardest workers on the team, Sanogo has a checklist of things that he plans to focus on this summer.

Working on his body is high on the list. Sanogo wants to drop some weight to improve his quickness and mobility.

He wore down toward the end of last season, according to Hurley who hopes the addition of freshman big man Donovan Clingan will provide some relief for Sanogo.

He's also following a nutrition plan. He cut back on one of his favorite meals, hibachi-style cooking, which he used to eat twice a week.

"I can't eat everything now, Sanago said. "I've got to lose some weight. It's tough but I've got to sacrifice."

On the basketball court, Sanogo will work on being better at switching on ball screens. And he needs to polish the rough edges off his jump shot and extend his range as well as improve his ballhandling and passing.

Sanogo is also aware of his responsibility as a leader. That's even more important this season with so many newcomers on the team.

"I can have a bad day, but not showing up for practice and stuff I can't have," Sanogo said. "I have to be a leader, so mentally I have to be strong. My teammates look up to me."

Hurley expects big things from Sanogo.

Sanogo has a lot to carry on his broad shoulders. He's playing for his UConn basketball family and his family back home. He's determined to fulfill his dream of playing in the NBA.

"He's on a mission," Hurley said. "He's going to attack the year like a monster, try to lead this team to a championship in the Big East, then a deep (NCAA) tournament run. I think he believes he's going to play himself into the NBA draft this year. That's the plan we've had for him since he's come to school here, his junior year he's going to put it all together and be a championship player and be a draft pick."

g.keefe@theday.com

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