UConn men ready for ‘early litmus test’ against Oregon

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When the 20th-ranked Huskies tip off against Oregon on Thursday at Moda Center (8 p.m., ESPN2), it will mark the first of 25 games against high-major opponents over their final 26 games. 

Voodoo Donuts may be an iconic franchise out here, but there are no cupcakes at this week’s Phil Knight Invitational.

“It’s an early-season, big-time tournament with only big-time programs out here,” coach Dan Hurley noted. “It’s a litmus test early. Obviously, you’ve got to put it in perspective. But it’s also a lot of fun to come play in a big event like this.”

UConn (5-0) opens up against the Ducks, then will face either No. 12 Michigan State or No. 18 Alabama on Friday. On Sunday, the Huskies could face top-ranked North Carolina, depending on how things fall.

The possible matchups are intriguing, especially when thinking along terms of NCAA tournament resume-building and NET rankings: playing the Tar Heels on Sunday would be ideal. Portland or even Villanova? Not so much.

But Hurley isn’t thinking along those terms.

“I think maybe when I was a little bit younger, I looked at all these games as such,” he noted. “But now, it’s really just to treat them like the next one on the schedule and try not to get wrapped up in potential ramifications, all the different things that can happen. We’re kind of locked-in on this opponent right here.”

Andre Jackson agreed. 

“That’s the biggest thing, just trying to step into every game as its own,” the 6-foot-6 junior wing said. “(Thursday) it’s UConn vs. Oregon and focusing on that. After that, we take the next step and focus on the next thing. I’m definitely excited. It’s a big opportunity for this team to show what we can do against high-level opponents.”

Jackson made his season debut on Friday in a win over UNC-Wilmington, infusing boundless energy in 19 minutes of action. Hurley hoped to get him to the 20-25-minute plateau on Sunday against Delaware State, but Jackson fouled out after 13 minutes.

“That was on me, mostly, just from getting in foul trouble,” he said. “I’m definitely excited for this. We’ve had a lot of days to prepare for this team. I’m looking forward to it, definitely.”

Oregon (2-2) is huge. It starts 7-footer Nate Bittle and 6-11 N’Faly Dante, its leading scorer (14.8 ppg) and rebounder. Kel’el Ware, 7-foot potential NBA lottery pick, comes off the bench.

UConn counters with 6-9 Adama Sanogo, the Big East’s leading scorer (21.4) and two-time league Player of the Week, to go with 7-2 freshman Donovan Clingan to form an impressive center combination. It would have been nice to have 6-9 sophomore Samson Johnson in action, but he is still out with a stress reaction in his foot and probably won’t be back until sometime next month.

“Their guys are similar to him, only a couple of inches bigger,” Hurley said, referring to Oregon’s big men. “Just as athletic and freakish.”

Hurley hopes to continue his good success in opening games of November multi-team events since he arrived at UConn. An emotional win over Syracuse in 2018 at Madison Square Garden. A win over Buffalo in James Bouknight’s debut in 2019 in Charleston. A win over powerful USC inside the “bubble” at Mohegan Sun Arena in 2020. A double-overtime classic win over Auburn last season in the Bahamas.

The Huskies’ struggles have come in the second games of those tournaments, but hope to change that this time around. Nothing will be easy, after all, over 25 of the next 26 games.

RIM RATTLINGS

• Like Sanogo, Dante is a native of Mali. The two know each other, according to Hurley.

“Mali has got a helluva group of guys playing in college,” the coach said. “More to come. Hopefully to UConn.”

Indeed, 2023 7-foot signee Youssof Singare also hails from Mali.

• It’s a homecoming for UConn grad guard Joey Calcaterra. Sort of.

Calcaterra hails from Marin County, California, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. So, it’ll be a short flight for his mom, dad and two older brothers to come watch him play this weekend.

“I haven’t seen them since I left California,” Calcaterra said. “I’m looking forward to it.”

Incidentally, Calcaterra is thinking of marketing his nickname of “Joey California.”

“I think the ‘California’ gear would sell more than the ‘Calcaterra’ gear,” he said.

david.borges@hearstmediact.com @DaveBorges

 

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