Why UConn’s Adama Sanogo will be center of Dan Hurley’s offense: ‘He’s our best player’

Game clock winding down to its final seconds, UConn trails by a point on the road at Villanova. Who do the Huskies turn to for a big shot?

James Bouknight’s not there to bail them out anymore, he’s a Charlotte Hornet. There’s no Kemba Walker or Shabazz Napier waiting to knock down a game-winning 3-pointer. No Ryan Boatright, Niels Giffey, DeAndre Daniels or Jalen Adams, either.

Maybe R.J. Cole is the guy. Good 3-point shooter, good scorer. Missed some key free throws in his first season at UConn, but overall a winning player who stepped up at times last year when Bouknight was injured.

Maybe you go with the hot hand, like Tyler Polley last year at Marquette. Maybe Akok Akok is ready to be that guy, or a veteran like Tyrese Martin, or even a freshman like Jordan Hawkins.

Or maybe, perhaps even most likely, the Huskies get the ball inside to Adama Sanogo. The 6-foot-10 sophomore was a revelation last season, showing great hands and a deft inside game. Whether he emerges as UConn’s “Mr. Clutch” this season remains to be seen, but one thing is certain.

“We’re gonna play through Adama,” Hurley promised. “He’s our best player.”

This will be somewhat new for Hurley, at least at the collegiate level. While coaching St. Benedict’s High in New Jersey for 10 years, Hurley often ran his offense through bigs like Samardo Samuels, Tristan Thompson and Greg Echenique. One of those teams was so stacked with talent that the 6-foot-9 Thompson, who’d go on to be a power forward/center in nine NBA seasons, was playing on the wing.

But it’s been a different story in college. At Wagner, Hurley didn’t have the ability to recruit dominant bigs. In his six years at Rhode Island, Hurley had 6-7 Hassan Martin as one of the top bigs in the Atlantic-10 for a few seasons. But those teams were largely dominated by guards like E.C. Matthews and Jared Terrell.

In Hurley’s first three seasons at UConn, the offense has mostly been facilitated through guards like Adams, Bouknight and Christian Vital.

In fact, that’s the direction much of basketball seems to be going. The days of the dominant, low-post big man in the NBA appear long-gone. Not surprisingly, with virtually every college big dreaming of one day playing in “The League,” the same trend has seeped into college hoops in recent years. Over at Alabama, coach Nate Oates only wants his players taking 3’s, layups or dunks. Mid-range jumpers, even jump hooks in the paint, need not apply.

No doubt, Hurley espouses some of these same values. He has stressed to forwards like Whaley, Akok, Samson Johnson and Richie Springs the importance of being able to step back and knock down 3’s.

“They can’t really kill our spacing when we play bigger,” Hurley noted. “They’ve got to be able to give us some things out behind the line. Or, they’ve got to be just devastating when we play two bigs.”

Hurley has talked about Sanogo expanding his range, as well, for his game to translate better at the next level. But don’t expect him to be tossing up a bunch of 3’s. A big reason why Hurley wants his offense well-spaced is to create more room for Sanogo to dominate in the paint.

And there’s no reason to expect that he won’t.

“Every time I see him on the court, he’s getting better and better,” Whaley said of his teammate. “He’s getting more comfortable passing out of the double teams, making quicker moves.”

Hurley salivates at his frontcourt depth. Whaley (6-9), Akok (6-9) and Johnson (6-10) will battle for minutes at the four. When Hurley wants to go small, he could have a Polley (6-9) or Martin (6-6) at the four, alongside Sanogo, Whaley or even Akok at the five, 6-6 Andre Jackson at the three, 6-5 Jordan Hawkins at shooting guard, and a point guard. That’s a pretty big “small” lineup.

“I don’t know that anyone’s role is guaranteed, beyond maybe a couple of guys, in terms of sure-thing, gonna be a starter/focal-point guy,” Hurley said.

Sanogo is one of those guys. And it’s not like he’s the last remaining big in college basketball. Hardly. Over in the Big Ten, 7-footers Kofi Cockburn of Illinois and Hunter Dickinson of Michigan are two of the best players in the country. Providence will be led by 6-10 classic center Nate Watson. Tre Mitchell at Texas, Jalen Duren at Memphis, Walker Kessler at Auburn, Colin Castleton at Florida ... the list is long.

Add Adama Sanogo to that list. It will be a bit of a different look for UConn and Hurley, but it will likely be their best.

“That’s a man on a mission right there,” Hurley said of Sanogo. “When you see what the guy does, daily … he’s a special player.”