Alex Karaban is stepping up in a big way

In the season opener, Karaban delivered a clear message that he's ready to be a team leader.

Prior to UConn’s 2023-24 season opener against Northern Arizona, Alex Karaban was asked what has changed in his game since his breakout freshman season.

The answer? His confidence.

“Last year I was hesitant at times,” Karaban said. “I think I’m more confident, more open to talking to my teammates off the court, talking to them on the court. Really just confidence in my abilities.”

That confidence was on full display Monday night, as the sophomore led all scorers with a career-high 22 points while adding seven rebounds. He continued to light it up from deep by going 3-of-6 from beyond the arc, but also beat his defender off the dribble multiple times with tough finishes in traffic.

With the likes of Jordan Hawkins, Andre Jackson, and Adama Sanogo now gone, Karaban will be asked to take on much more responsibility on both ends than last season. After establishing himself as a critical member of the Huskies during their NCAA tournament run, Karaban seems ready to rise to the occasion and take his game to the next level.

“Coach told me during the offseason he expects me to make the freshman to sophomore season jump that we have seen all of the other great UConn players make,” said the sophomore forward from Massachusetts.

Throughout last season, Karaban worked tirelessly to improve his defense, especially against larger players. Within a few months, he went from a defensive liability early in the year to keeping Providence star Bryce Hopkins largely in check in the Huskies’ 87-69 win over the Friars at Gampel last season.

“I just think that he’s learned a lot and he’s gotten better defensively,” Hurley said after that game. “He probably wasn’t a horrible defensive player, he was just not a good defensive player and he’s getting better…Even though he’s not a great vertical athlete, Alex has long arms and he’s smart.”

That improvement on the defensive end not only allows Karaban to stay on the floor longer but it also lets Hurley try his hand with a bunch of unique defensive looks.

Against NAU, Hurley even trotted Karaban out as the center against the small Lumberjacks squad. While the head coach partially chalked it up to foul trouble for his true bigs, he added that this could be a useful lineup.

Karaban as a center with other shooters on the floor could open up the paint for guards like Tristen Newton and Stephon Castle to blow by their defenders and get into the paint for easy layups. Defensively, Karaban and the bigger guards could switch on every screen to give opposing offenses a very different look than usual.

“When you have big perimeter people like we’ve got… we could play a small-ball lineup like that and cause a lot of problems,” Hurley said. “Switch everything and have a lot of skill and shooting on the court.”

On a team loaded with NBA talent like Donovan Clingan and Stephon Castle, Karaban might not stand out at first glance. While he is already an elite 3-point shooter, his best asset for this year’s team is that he can be a jack of all trades as an emerging vocal leader.

With his defense improved, along with his ability to score off the dribble and his high basketball IQ, he has no glaring weaknesses in his game. That’s part of the reason former UConn coach Jim Calhoun told Fox Sports that Karaban might be the best player on the team during the NAU game.

In order for UConn to get back to the Final Four, the Huskies will need Karaban to continue to evolve on both ends to fill the gaps on this team left by the departures of Jackson, Hawkins, and Sanogo. So far, the sophomore seems ready for the challenge. But he’s also aware of the fact that it’ll take a deep roster of confident guys to get there.

“We have so many guys capable of scoring 20, scoring 30…you just have to continue to feed whoever is hot,” Karaban said.

The Huskies’ second game is on Saturday at noon when they host Stonehill at the XL Center. The game will be televised on FS2.

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