The 2023-2024 college basketball season is officially underway with the UConn Huskies being one of the first to take the court.
This wasn’t just any typical start to the season as Gampel Pavilion welcomed a new banner to its rafters to celebrate a UConn Huskies squad that made one of the most dominant March Madness runs of all time including a perfect non-conference record through the course of the season.
Northern Arizona University tried to end that streak on Monday night as they entered the contest as 26.5-point underdogs. The game started off slow as UConn took the first few minutes to shake off their championship hangover, but they eventually settled into the game and began building a lead that they never gave up.
After losing multiple key contributors from the previous season, UConn’s return to the court certainly came with some curiosity among Husky fans as to who would be filling those shoes. Would it be their star point guard Tristen Newton? How about Alex Karaban or Donovan Clingan taking their games to the next level? Perhaps even UConn basketball’s latest 5-star recruit Stephon Castle could lead the team. It is only opening night, but this one game may have begun to answer all of those questions so let’s get into the three takeaways.
Takeaway 1: The return of the 1-2 punch
Last season, we saw one of the best frontcourt duos in the country with Adama Sanogo and Donovan Clingan. With Sanogo leaving school for the NBA, the door is wide open for Clingan to step into the starting role and he did so with an excellent showing in his first game as a starter. Donovan did recently return from a foot injury, but he looked like his normal self on the court as he scored 12 points, grabbed 8 rebounds, and had 3 blocks in just 15 minutes of playing time. He is clearly the focal point of this offense while on the court and it will be exciting to see what Clingan can accomplish once he’s able to fully take on the starter minutes that are surely coming his way.
Everyone expected to see Clingan continue to be successful in the frontcourt, but a happy surprise for Husky fans was to see junior Samson Johnson play some significant minutes. He tallied up 11 points, 5 rebounds, and 3 blocks as he displayed his incredible athleticism on both ends of the court. If Samson can continue this solid play off the bench then the UConn Huskies may just have another 1-2 punch at the center position that they can rely on throughout the season.
Takeaway 2: Old dogs can learn new tricks
Besides Clingan, there are some other notable returning players from last year’s championship squad that fans were excited to see. Tristen Newton tested the NBA Draft waters this offseason but ultimately decided to use his 5th year of eligibility to return to Storrs as the starting point guard. It was clear that Newton’s comfort level in this Dan Hurley system only grew over time as he was equally effective at driving to the rim as he was at staying out on the perimeter to run the offense and help create good looks for his teammates.
Another returning player who also seemed more comfortable on the court is guard Hassan Diarra as he provided consistent effort and energy off the bench. His 6 points, 2 rebounds, and 2 assists don’t do justice to the improvement that he has made over the summer.
— UConn Men’s Basketball (@UConnMBB) November 7, 2023
Speaking of comfort and consistency, Alex Karaban had a true breakout performance setting his new career high in scoring with 22 points on 8-of-12 shooting which really showcases the strides that he has made in his game. Whether it’s shooting the long ball or finishing through contact at the rim, Karaban appears to be a guy that UConn basketball can continue to rely on during their quest to repeat.
Takeaway 3: It’s Always Nice to See a Fresh Face
While the returning players for the Huskies certainly played a big role in UConn’s 43-point victory, there were some new faces in Storrs that are worth mentioning. Although four years apart in age, Stephon Castle and Cam Spencer both made their UConn Huskies debuts against Northern Arizona. As highly touted additions to this team, Castle and Spencer were both in the starting lineup for the first game of the season. They each had their struggles finding their roles in the offense early with 4 turnovers between the two of them.
Many expected Cam Spencer to come in as a sharpshooter from deep, but it was his 5 assists that stuck out as he focused more on being a facilitator for his teammates. Castle was having a quiet debut until an incredible stretch late in the second half when he swished a pull-up three and then followed it up the next possession with a great spin move for an easy finish at the basket. Both players will need some time to fully grow into their roles, but there is no doubt that Spencer and Castle are going to be key pieces for the Huskies this season.
Next game for the UConn Huskies: vs. Stonehill (Nov. 11 – Noon)
Northern Arizona at Grand Canyon (Nov. 12 – 5:30 p.m.)