Dan Hurley, UConn basketball

For the fifth time in their history, UConn basketball will enter a new season as the defending champs.

How will the Huskies respond? Dan Hurley didn’t mess around, putting together a very difficult non-conference schedule. We know how challenging the Big East slate will be. But UConn basketball may also have one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the nation.

It’s rare to face this many potential Final Four teams in one non-conference schedule, but UConn basketball didn’t mess around. Some people made points about the Huskies’ level of competition in the 2023 NCAA Tournament, but no one can say a thing about this schedule.

Top 5 opponents

1. Kansas (Road, Dec. 1)

The last two National Champions will square off in a blue-blood battle in Lawrence. This game is a part of the annual Big East-Big 12 Battle, and a battle is the right way to describe it. The Huskies and Jayhawks both move past some generational players. Adama Sanogo is no longer in Storrs. Jalen Wilson’s career at Allen Fieldhouse is over. But now, new stars will look to cement their legacies for these programs. This will be a great early test for two teams with fresh outlooks for the future.

2. North Carolina (Neutral, Dec. 5)

UConn basketball will face not one, but two blue bloods in 2023. This game is a part of the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden. For the Huskies, having an inside presence will be key. Armando Bacot is one of the best returning players in college basketball and is a force inside. At 6-10, 240 pounds, his size creates havoc. Last season, Bacot found a way to average 15.9 points per game and 10.4 rebounds per game. The year before, he put together a 16.3 PPG and 13.1 RPG statline. With RJ Davis also back, the Tar Heels are looking to get back to form after falling far below expectations last season. For a younger UConn bunch, this could be a bit of a teaching moment.

3. Gonzaga (Away, Dec. 15)

For most teams, an away tilt with Gonzaga would be the marquee matchup of the season. For UConn basketball, it’s arguably the third or fourth-best game on the schedule. Of course, the Zags will still be a top-25 team but might take a step back without Drew Timme. Regardless, this is a rematch from UConn’s toughest opponent in the NCAA Tournament last season and will be a very tough test on the road.

4. Texas* (Neutral, Dec. 20)

UConn has the chance to play Texas in the Empire Classic Championship Game if both teams win (or lose) their first games. The Huskies should be favored to knock off Indiana, and the Longhorns have a much better roster on paper than Louisville. Tyrese Hunter and Dylan Disu lead an experienced group of returners joined by Oral Roberts transfer Max Abmas and Virginia transfer Kadin Shedrick. Texas is expected to be one of the best teams in the Big 12. The atmosphere and energy of this potential game in the Garden is exactly why non-conference college basketball games are so fun.

5. Indiana (Neutral, Dec. 19)

In case you haven’t noticed a pattern here yet, all five of UConn’s most challenging non-conference games are either on the road or at a neutral site. Of course, Madison Square Garden is practically a home game for the Huskies. However, you have to wonder if the student body in Storrs wishes they had at least one of these games at Gampel Pavillion or the XL Center. Putting that aside, this is a great matchup of a former blue blood against a current blue blood. UConn has replaced Indiana within the past decade so this game will give the Hoosiers a chance to revisit the glory days. Without Trayce Jackson-Davis, it’s going to be hard.

2 trap games

1. Louisville*

We don’t know how Louisville is going to be after going 4-28 last season. The Cardinals could either be really, really bad, or a lot more improved. Either way, if UConn faces them in the Empire Classic Championship Game (or third-place game), the Huskies would be the clear favorite. It would be at MSG, which is pretty much a UConn home game, against an old Big East rival. However, it would be on low preparation and certainly isn’t the expected matchup for either team.

2. New Hampshire

A fellow New England team, UNH has a few players that could make this game close. Following a 15-15 season, the Wildcats return Clarence Daniels, a 6-6, 225-pound beast who put up 15.3 PPG and 10.7 RPG last season. Jaxson Baker also comes back and is a player who can torch teams from outside, hitting 36.2% of his threes last season. Should the Huskies win by 25 points? Yes, but with this game falling just four days before the Kansas tilt, who knows where UConn’s heads will be?

5 must-win games

1. Manhattan

If there’s one mid-major program that could give UConn basketball some headaches, it’s Manhattan. Coached by John Gallagher, who took Hartford to its first and only NCAA Tournament, you have to believe he will want this game as much as anyone on the court. He brought over Briggs McClain, a 6-4 guard who averaged almost 15 PPG with the Hawks last season. Besides McClain, it’s anybody’s guess. UConn is way too talented to mess around and lose this game.

2. Arkansas Pine-Bluff

This has to be the easiest game on the Huskies’ schedule. No offense to the Golden Lions, but a 25-92 record over the last four years doesn’t scream “upset alert,” against UConn basketball. This program hasn’t even had a winning season since 2012-13 and this isn’t a game that will help them reach that goal.

3. Mississippi Valley State (Home, Nov. 14)

The Delta Devils are an awesome team nickname, but MVSU is not an awesome team. They went 5-27 last season, which is brutal, especially in the SWAC. For UConn, this game is a glorified exhibition to get them ready for the grueling schedule that awaits in December.

4. Northern Arizona (Home, Nov. 6)

The Lumberjacks went 12-23 last season and lost their best player, Jalen Cone, who averaged over 17 PPG. Cone is now at Cal, which is awesome for him, but bad for his former team. The talent is all in UConn’s favor in this one. It is worth noting that former CCSU player Trenton McLaughlin is on this UNA team, so it’ll be a cool homecoming for him.

5. Stonehill (Home, Nov. 11)

Last season, in Stonehill’s first-ever game as a Division I team, they lost to UConn, 85-54. Will that change this year? I don’t think the result will, but it could be a bit closer. The Skyhawks found a way to go 14-17 and 10-6 in the NEC, so they could enter this game with more confidence. That doesn’t always equal a win, though.

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