Indiana Preview: UConn's big men should be ready for the challenge
A breakdown of what the Husky bigs do well and where they need work.
Big men donning the UConn jersey always have big shoes to fill. This year, sophomore Donovan Clingan and junior Samson Johnson are working toward that goal and the Huskies’ hopes of another deep tournament run.
They have a big early-season test ahead of them as UConn heads to Madison Square Garden for the Empire Classic, where it will face Indiana on Sunday at 1 p.m. and possibly No. 19 Texas on Monday. Both teams, but Indiana in particular, will present a strong test down low.
Connecticut got its final tune-up against Mississippi Valley State on Tuesday night, defeating the Delta Devils, 87-53. Husky fans have plenty to feel good about heading into the weekend, like a different high-scorer in all three games this season and a 39-point average margin of victory thus far.
Both Clingan and Johnson are stepping into larger roles this season, and both have shown that they’re up for the challenge. They definitely have areas to build on but the talent being flashed is immense.
None of UConn’s matchups were as big as Indiana, though. MVSU didn’t have a player over 6-foot-8, compared to the 6-foot-10 Johnson and 7-foot-2 Clingan, and in that game head coach Dan Hurley said he felt like Johnson took a bit of a step back.
That doesn’t change how great he looked against Stonehill and Northern Arizona, good enough to be the sixth-leading scorer on the team with 8.0 points per game, while pulling down 3.7 rebounds per contest. Hurley has said he’d like to see the rebounding improve, which is surely something to watch with Johnson over these next two games. Clingan is tied for third on the team with 15.0 PPG and second in rebounds with 6.7 RPG.
Here’s a look at the strengths and weaknesses of these bigs.
What they do well
Pick-and-roll game. The zone defense of Mississippi Valley didn’t lend itself to many high-ball screen opportunities for the Huskies, but we saw it succeed a lot against NAU and Stonehill. When the chances arose, both big men put impressive reps on tape. Clingan and Spencer flashed a nice two-man game with the sophomore feeding UConn’s hottest shooter on a dribble handoff, quickly pivoting to set a screen. The Devil’s defender went under the pick, leading to an open three from the hot-shooting Spencer.
Johnson worked the two-man game with Spencer as well. He showed a good feel for the pick-and-roll, slipping a screen when the MVSU defense overplayed the ball handler. The recognition by Johnson didn’t result in a shot attempt, but it is positive to note. He also caught a great alley-oop to set the tone early in the NAU game, which featured five dunks by him, and had an amazing one against MVSU.
Dishing. The big duo saw plenty of hard double teams when catching in the post or short corner. Neither panicked, maintaining strong possession and finding open teammates. Scrappy, smaller opponents swiping at the ball can wreak havoc on big men. But both Huskies did a solid job of keeping it high and away from prying defenders, keeping the ball moving.
Against MVSU, Clingan showed nice vision dishing from the block across the lane, setting up a dunk. Johnson threaded a nifty pass from the short corner to a cutting teammate from the high post, leading to a pair of UConn free throws. Passing between the low and high post is something to continue to watch as the season progresses, especially in the event the two big men find themselves together on the court.
Adjusting to the defense. Clingan can be a bit slow in the early going getting to his post moves—using one or two unneeded dribbles. With his size and strength against a much smaller opponent, the objective should be zero dribbles or one power dribble and up strong. Clingan found his groove in the second half against MVSU, registering three buckets (two of them dunks) on a total of one dribble. Less wasted movement, less chance of being stripped leading to higher percentage shots at the rim.
What needs work
Rebounding. Combining for 10 boards against a smaller and physically inferior team didn’t inspire a lot of confidence. Early on, Clingan missed a boxout on a free-throw attempt leading to a second-chance opportunity for MVSU. Johnson had a great weak-side seal to corral an offensive board but was immediately stripped when he brought the ball down into the fray. Both Johnson and Clingan showed solid effort attacking the glass, and both seemingly had a great feel for the vacant areas in the zone defense, putting themselves in prime rebounding position. Overall, the Huskies outrebounded Mississippi Valley State, 41-30 but the production from the bigs certainly left something to be desired.
Blocking the blocker. Now this one is pure speculation. Admittingly, I’m completely unaware of what coach Dan Hurley is asking from his guards defensively but I’d like to see Clingan and Johnson get more opportunities to block shots from the help side.
On two separate occasions, Alex Karaban committed fouls while contesting shots near the paint. With Clingan roaming the lane, I’d much rather see the Huskies perimeter players stay straight up and let the big fella fly in to clean up the possession with a block. For Clingan, when he does have the opposition bearing down directly on him, he needs to stay out of foul trouble by going vertical and not turning his body in the air. He was called for a foul because of this once, negating what I thought was a good contest vertically until the last second.
It should be noted, the Devils’ offense pulled both bigs to the perimeter quite a bit, negating potential shot-blocking opportunities, and many teams will try this. Clingan and Johnson did decent jobs holding their own when asked to defend away from the paint.
Find the left. Clingan showed he loves to the drop step to his left, getting his shot up with the right hand over the left shoulder. In the first half, he used this move from both sides of the paint.
Ideally, as the sophomore’s game continues to grow, he’ll get comfortable going to the left hand. In the second half, he had a Devils’ defender on his back who was leaving the right-footed drop step and the baseline wide open. Clingan didn’t take the path of lesser resistance and chose to once again go to the right hand.
Having confidence is the opposite hand takes a lot of time and repetition. For a player like Clingan who is entering his first year as a starter, not feeling comfortable going to the offhand makes perfect sense. I’ll be watching throughout the year to see when and if he adds that to his arsenal as a counterpunch to his already powerful and impressive go-to move on the block.
Free ones. Clingan is at 35 percent from the stripe and Johnson is not much better at 50 percent. This has to improve.