Will UConn men's basketball team's success at Phil Knight tournament predict what's ahead for Huskies?

UConn head coach Dan Hurley coaches during the NCAA men's college basketball game between No. 25 UConn and Delaware State at the XL Center in Hartford, Conn. Sunday, Nov. 20, 2022.

UConn head coach Dan Hurley coaches during the NCAA men's college basketball game between No. 25 UConn and Delaware State at the XL Center in Hartford, Conn. Sunday, Nov. 20, 2022.

Tyler Sizemore/Hearst Connecticut Media

On Tuesday, the UConn men’s basketball team was slated to practice inside the Werth Family Champions Center, then head to Bradley Airport, along with the women’s basketball team, to fly out West to the next stage of its season.

The Huskies are playing in the Phil Knight Invitational, a collection of eight Nike-sponsored programs that features some of the top teams in the country. No. 1-ranked North Carolina will be out there, along with No. 12 Michigan State, No. 18 Alabama and the 20th-ranked Huskies. Villanova, UConn’s Big East rival, Oregon, Iowa State and Portland round out the field.  

UConn opens against Oregon on Thursday at 8 p.m. (ESPN2) and will face either Michigan State or Alabama on Friday. A date with the Tar Heels could await on Sunday. 

That would be the ideal route for the Huskies to take, playing teams that will most likely pump up their resume come Selection Sunday. As of Monday night, UConn had the third-best KenPom ranking among the eight teams in the field at No. 20. Alabama was at No. 12, North Carolina at 16, Michigan State at 22. Those numbers still reflect some of last season’s results. The first NET rankings, the NCAA’s chief tool in determining the NCAA tournament field, will be released on Dec. 5. 

The Big East (which just went 2-6 in the Gavitt Games against Big 10 teams) appears it could be down this season. Only No. 10 Creighton and the Huskies are ranked. And UConn’s other two high-major opponents have struggled out of the gates: Oklahoma State is 3-2 with losses to Southern Illinois (at home) and UCF. Florida lost to Florida Atlantic, at home, for the first time ever. 

The last thing the Huskies want is a scenario where they somehow wind up playing Portland on Sunday.  

Obviously, no matter how UConn fares this week, there will still be a long season ahead to determine just how good this team is. Still, multi-team events (MTE’s) like this can give a good barometer of a team, and serve as a predictor of things to come. 

UConn’s last two national title teams each won competitive early-season tournaments. Perhaps the best example came in November, 2010, when Kemba Walker gave a sneak preview of his upcoming heroics by leading the Huskies to victory over Wichita State, Michigan State and Kentucky to win the Maui Invitational.  

A little over four months later, after a mercurial, 9-9 season in the Big East, Walker was hoisting the national championship trophy after leading the Huskies to five wins in five nights at the Big East tourney, then six more in the Big Dance. 

In a smaller, less tropical MTE in November, 2013, UConn edged Boston College, then topped Indiana to win the 2K Sports Classic at Madison Square Garden. Kevin Ollie & Co. celebrated that win as if they’d just won a national title – which, of course, they would do a little over four months later in Dallas. 

Last year’s trip to the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas wound up being a microcosm of UConn’s season. Great hope and promise after an instant-classic, double-overtime win over No. 19 Auburn. A startling flameout in the waning minutes against Michigan State after appearing en route to victory. A lethargic effort in a win over a middling VCU team, the Huskies seemingly out of gas. 

In March, UConn won a Big East tourney game over Seton Hall before falling to Villanova, then getting unceremoniously bounced from the NCAA tourney by New Mexico State – again, seemingly out of gas. 

Either way, this week will give a much better picture of what the Huskies are than their first five games against a collection of cupcakes. Last season, the Huskies looked real good in winning their first four against a slew of low-majors, winning by an average of 40.7 points. They won their final tune-up before heading to the Bahamas with an uninspiring win by “only” 24 points over Binghamton. Hurley attributed some of that to “human nature.” 

He dealt the “human nature” card again following UConn’s 35-point win over lowly Delaware State. The Huskies only outscored the Hornets, who were without their leading scorer, by two points in the second half. 

Hurley can only hope UConn rebounds on Thursday against Oregon the way it did a year earlier against Auburn.  

david.borges@hearstmediact.com @DaveBorges