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No. 22 UConn men tip off Battle 4 Atlantis basketball tournament with toughest test yet: No. 19 Auburn

Hartford Courant logoHartford Courant 11/27/2021 Alexa Philippou, Hartford Courant

UConn men’s basketball coach Dan Hurley was far from thrilled with how his team played Saturday against mid-major program Binghamton, even though the Huskies came away with a 24-point win.

The Huskies’ Battle 4 Atlantis tournament opener Wednesday offers a chance for the squad to bounce back, but they have to do so against the toughest team they’ve yet to face. No. 22 UConn (4-0) will play its first ranked opponent of the season, No. 19 Auburn (3-0), at 2:30 p.m. on ESPN.

Hurley is hoping that, if anything, Saturday was the “wake-up call” his team needed to come out as he knows they’re capable of playing.

“Obviously a lot of things in the way that we played on Saturday would take a wrecking ball to our chances of winning [this week] if we do it again,” Hurley said. “Hopefully, we will look back on the tournament saying we’re glad that the things happened Saturday because it allowed us to course-correct.”

Hurley has tremendous respect for Auburn, who he said could be good enough to make an Elite Eight or Final Four run. It’s not simply its depth, attacking style, size, and athleticism that stands out, but more so its toughness. Hurley went as far to call the Tigers “one of the hardest playing teams in the country, and the way that they play negates the advantage that we have over most teams.”

Auburn boasts a 23-point win over Morehead State, a 28-point one over Louisiana-Monroe and a six-point road victory over USF.

“They play really hard. They’re really athletic, so they can match us on that level,” UConn sophomore Andre Jackson said. “It’s going to be a really good game. We’re both really hard-nosed teams, so it’ll be a fun game to watch and definitely an intense and physical game.”

The road won’t get much easier after Wednesday. No. 6 Baylor, the defending national champs, are in the tournament, as well as Michigan State and Loyola-Chicago, who both received votes in the latest Associated Press poll.

Regardless of how the Huskies fare this week, the primary goal is to become a better team by the end of it.

“These games are important in terms of what you’re trying to do long-term, learning about your team and where your blind spots are and where you really, really need to get better,” Hurley said. “The level of competition is going to rise significantly here, and the areas where we need to improve will be exposed this week.”

Here’s what else you need to know about the matchup.

The basics

Site: Atlantis, Paradise Island, The Bahamas

Time: 2:30 p.m.

Series: Auburn leads, 2-1

Last meeting: Auburn 89, UConn 64, Dec. 23 2017, in Auburn, Alabama

TV: ESPN (Karl Ravech, Jimmy Dykes)

Radio: UConn IMG Sports Network on 97.9 ESPN (Wayne Norman, Mike Crispino)

Next up: UConn will play either Michigan State or Loyola-Chicago Thursday

Elsewhere in the bracket: On Wednesday, Michigan State and Loyola-Chicago play at noon, followed by Syracuse-VCU at 5 p.m. and Baylor-Arizona State at 7:30 p.m.

Auburn probable starters, sixth man

Jabari Smith, F, 6-10, Fr.; Wendell Green Jr., G, 5-11, So.; Zep Jasper, G, 6-1, Sr.; Walker Kessler, F, 7-1, So.; Devan Cambridge, G, 6-6, Jr.; K.D. Johnson, G, 6-0, So.

UConn probable starters, sixth man

Isaiah Whaley, F, 6-9, Gr.; Tyrese Martin, G, 6-6, Sr.; Adama Sanogo, F, 6-9, So.; Andre Jackson, G, 6-6, So.; R.J. Cole, G, 6-1, Gr.; Jalen Gaffney, G, 6-3, Jr.

The matchup

UConn’s offense: Ranked 29th in the country per KenPom, Sanogo is the leading scorer at 15.8 points per game, but the squad is still a remarkably balanced group with Martin, Cole, Tyler Polley and Gaffney also averaging double figures. That’s not even including the likes of Jackson, who can heat up, freshman Jordan Hawkins, who’s still finding is footing after missing the first two games of the season due to injury, and Akok Akok, who’s finally made his return after tearing his Achilles in Feb. 2020.

UConn’s defense: The real heart of this UConn team is ranked 18th in the country per KenPom. Albeit against overmatched opponents, the Huskies have limited opponents to 33.0% shooting from the field (24.4% from 3). They own a +13.0 margin on the boards, with Jackson, Sanogo and Martin each collecting at least six rebounds per game, and other teams have averaged 22.3 turnovers per game against them. Their 51.3 points allowed per game are the fifth-lowest for a Division I team.

Auburn’s offense: The Tigers’ offense is ranked 30th in the country per KenPom. Johnson (15.0), Smith (13.3) and Green (11.3) are averaging double figures. The team as a whole averages 76.0 points but scored just 58 against its best opponent yet, USF. The Tigers aren’t great from the arc (29.3%) and are shooting an unimpressive 43.2% from the field but take care of the ball quite well.

Auburn’s defense: Ranked 33th in the country per KenPom, the Tigers’ defensive unit holds opponents to 37.9% shooting, a 28.6% clip from 3 and 57 points per game. The unit is fifth in the nation with 8.0 blocks per game, with Kessler accounting for nearly half of them.

UConn keys: Get back to its defensive identity and don’t let Auburn’s athleticism and ability to attack rock the Huskies back on their heels. They must avoid another slow start, control the boards and win the toughness battle.

Players to watch: Hurley wasn’t thrilled with Sanogo’s last two games, and he’ll have his work cut out for him against Auburn’s tough front court, which features the 7-1 Kessler and potential top-five NBA pick Smith.

“He’s going to have to play a big-time game for us,” Hurley said. “The best players have to play great to win games like this. Going to have to make contributions across the board and going to have to be incredibly tough, because they play really hard.”

About Auburn’s coach: Bruce Pearl sports a 603–237 record entering Wednesday’s matchup (141–92 at Auburn) after previous stops at Tennessee, Milwaukee and Southern Indiana (the latter where he won a Division II national title and national coach of the year honors). The Tigers have made two NCAA appearances under his watch, including in 2019 when the squad beat Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky to advance to the Final Four.

Auburn’s mascot: Aubie the Tiger.

Famous alumni: NBA legend Charles Barkley, Apple CEO Tim Cook, actress Octavia Spencer.

Alexa Philippou can be reached at aphilippou@courant.com

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