Following three tighter than contested wins to start its non-conference schedule, Indiana men’s basketball is set to face its biggest competitor yet Sunday afternoon. The Hoosiers will take on defending national champions No. 5 University of Connecticut in Madison Square Garden to kick off the Empire Classic.
Despite coming out unscathed, Indiana’s opening stretch left did not live up to Hoosier nation’s expectations. The Hoosiers failed to cover the point spread in each contest and have yet to win by double digits against their mid-major opponents.
Sophomore center Kel’el Ware has been the star of the show in his first season with the cream and crimson. The University of Oregon transfer and former No. 7 recruit is averaging team highs of 18.3 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks per game.
Ware’s front court mate sophomore forward Malik Reneau has been second in command for the Hoosiers’ offense. Reneau is averaging 15 points, 5.3 rebounds and four assists in his expanded role this year. The duo has assumed the role previously occupied by Trayce Jackson-Davis and Race Thompson.
Despite its major size advantage over opponents, Indiana has struggled to corral rebounds. Its opponents have gathered double-digit offensive rebounds in every contest, outgaining the Hoosiers 38-20 in the category.
A main concern for Indiana has been its 3-point disparities. The Hoosiers have been outscored 111-33 from the 3-point line, with opponents shooting 37.8% from deep on higher volume compared to Indiana’s 27.5%.
Indiana was able to get away with its woes so far, but with its best opponent to date on hand, its several flaws might not fly. The Huskies have steamrolled their opponents to open their season — scoring 96.3 points per game to their opponents’ 57.3 — and are on track to solidify themselves as one of the nation’s best teams.
UConn lost its two star players in Adama Sanogo and Jordan Hawkins but brought back a new exciting guard-center duo. Graduate guard Tristen Newton has taken a step forward in his scoring and sophomore center Donovan Clingan is one of college basketball’s most intriguing big men due to his defensive abilities and high ceiling.
Clingan came off the bench behind Sanogo but flashed extreme potential. In just 13 minutes per game, Clingan put up 6.9 points and 5.6 rebounds per game. This year, he’s increased his stats to 15 points and 6.7 rebounds per game while still playing a light 18 minutes per game.
Newton was UConn’s best distributor for last year’s championship team and has maintained his production while increasing scoring. He has jumped from 10.4 points per game to 15.3 while dishing out 4.7 assists per game.
The Huskies excel in Indiana’s problematic areas. UConn ranks 10th in Division I with a rebound margin of 16 per game, including nabbing 15.3 offensive rebounds per game. While Indiana has managed to limit second-chance points despite the plethora of offensive rebounds allowed, the Huskies will capitalize if given enough second chances.
UConn can also knock down the deep ball. The Huskies average 9.3 3-pointers per game on 33% shooting.
UConn’s biggest asset from beyond the arc is a familiar face to the Hoosiers — Rutgers transfer Cam Spencer. Spencer has stroked 11 3-pointers — the same amount as Indiana’s entire team — on 45.8% this year.
UConn will be missing a key piece Sunday while Indiana will be sweating its own injury decision. For the Huskies, head coach Dan Hurley announced Friday freshman guard Stephon Castle will miss multiple weeks with a knee injury. Castle, the No. 10 player in the 2023 recruiting class according to 247 sports, averaged 14.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists in his two appearances.
Indiana senior guard Xavier Johnson went down with less than a minute remaining against Wright State University on Thursday night. Johnson’s 2022-23 campaign was cut short due to a foot injury against Kansas University in December 2022. Johnson has played a pivotal role as one of the Hoosiers’ most experienced players, owning titleship as co-captain.
Indiana and UConn will tip off at 1 p.m. Sunday in Madison Square Garden in New York. The game will be available to watch on ESPN.