UConn keeps Big East looking strong in March Madness 2023

One day, with a few grown-up drinks or a generous dose of truth serum, the members of the NCAA Men’s Tournament Selection Committee might let us know if they had a collective, wry smile on their bracket No. 13 Iona just a few hours from the Albany campus against a fourth-seeded UConn eyeing another Final Four run.

The contest represented one of the must-see games of the first weekend of the Big Dance, pitting two beloved analysts against each other while riding on the juicy story of Dan Hurley taking on one of the best in this time of year to Rick Pitino.

[Sources: St. John’s intends to hire Rick Pitino as coach]

Whatever the reasoning behind any such machinations for the game, the reality lived up to the high billing Friday night as the Huskies cruised to a fun 87-63 win over the Gaels

Even the deceptive final margin did not fully reflect what transpired over the course of the 40 minutes, a masterpiece on the court that was among the best games of the first round, especially in the first half. UConn, whose depth has been a hallmark of the program this season and a reason the Huskies are ranked fourth in KenPom’s latest rankings, got contributions from all over the bench to allow the Hurley left late.

“We played well in the first half, but they made a lot of shots,” Hurley said on the postgame broadcast. “If you want to win this time of year, your big guns have to show up and play at a high level.”

They did that as the program won its first NCAA Tournament game seven years to the day in 2016.

Freshman Donovan Clingan was outstanding early on both ends of the court as the 7-foot-2 center surpassed his season averages well before the mid-point mark and finished with 12 points and one rebound shy of a double-double. Turnovers and a handful of point-blank fouls kept Iona down by one at the half as it pushed the pace to try to negate the Huskies’ size advantage on nearly every touch of Clingan’s post.

All of that was just the opening act for teammate Adama Sanogo, however, who came out of the locker room to completely take over the contest and turn a nail-biter into a routine loss for the Huskies. The First Team All-Big East player was unstoppable on his way to a game-high 28 points and 13 rebounds, recording a double-double in just the second half on 10-of-12 shooting before being held to a standing ovation in the state of New York with more than two minutes to play.

The junior forward through Mali made it all look effortless, using nifty footwork around the rim for easy lay-ins and raining down a handful of powerful dunks on the smaller Gaels.

Andre Jackson Jr. fed the low post a lot on his way to seven assists and 10 points, marking a quality return to the Albany area where he grew up. half points, a reflection of how things went right for his team as the guard overcame an 0-for-6 shooting slump to start the game.

Pitino, who rotated far more than he would have liked with an overmatched roster, initially appeared to be in a prime position to make an impact in the West Regional matchup, but failed to make much of a dent at defensive end in as time passed. . Things seemed to mostly unravel for the MAAC tournament champions after a 1-for-6 start to the second half from which they were never able to recover to make it interesting again.

Walter Clayton Jr. was one of the few outside threats from the field for Iona and finished with a game-high 15. He also went a perfect 4-for-4 from the charity stripe to finish the season with just five missed free throws overall. .

The loss not only ends Iona’s season, but is bound to spark even more speculation about the future of its 70-year-old coach. Pitino is expected to move down the road from his current gig, sources told FOX Sports’ John Fanta Friday afternoon that St. John’s intends to hire Pitino.

If Pitino eventually ends up returning to the all-too-familiar confines of the Big East, the conference that lives and breathes hoops can hang its hat on the Huskies’ performance by solidifying a quality effort in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, come what may. it happens moving forward.

The league went 4-0 to start the opening weekend of action with UConn’s win before Providence fell to top-seeded Kentucky later in the evening.

Big East champion Marquette used a big second-half run fueled by Kam Jones to put away Vermont 78-61 and end its own tournament drought with the Golden Eagles’ first March Madness win since 2013 .

“So one of the best things I thought our guys did all day was not get offended or upset that Vermont was trying to win. That helped us a lot. And we kept playing. And we focused on getting the next stop, get the next score,” Marquette head coach Shaka Smart said. “What opened up the game for us, obviously, was when you put the ball in Kam Jones’ hands, he’s a uniquely gifted scorer. He’s got a couple more steps to take as a player, and with his competitive maturity , to be able to do it all the time.”

Marquette moves through a fascinating matchup against Michigan State in the second round, while Xavier, who the Eagles beat at Madison Square Garden last week, pulled out a 72-67 win over Kennesaw State. Creighton, meanwhile, beat NC State, 72-63.

“Tonight’s game was a lot like our Big East Tournament opener at DePaul, where we got down a lot and then maybe the last 12 minutes of the game, you know, we fought hard to win,” said l Musketeers coach Sean Miller. “So we’re lucky. This game could have gone either way. I think everyone up here on the podium knows we have to be better on Sunday than we were today, but very grateful to continue in the Tournament.

Miller advances to face his alma mater Pitt in a game that will have no shortage of storylines with a Sweet 16 spot on the line in two days. The Panthers were dispatched in the first four but have won two straight to advance, including a blowout of Iowa State earlier Friday that saw the Cyclones limited to just 23 percent shooting.

“Until you go through the tournament, you don’t really understand how tenuous it is between advancing and going home tonight,” Miller said. “We’ve experienced it, and we’ve looked it in the eye, and my hope is that we can respond and be better.”

The fine line between winning and losing is something a team like UConn has experienced in recent iterations of the tournament, and it seemed to be flirting with it early against Iona. But thanks to a well-timed halftime break and a handful of words from Hurley, the Huskies move forward in impressive fashion to solidify a strong tournament start for themselves and their fellow Big East rivals.

Bryan Fischer is a college football writer for FOX Sports. He has been covering college athletics for nearly two decades at outlets including NBC Sports, CBS Sports, Yahoo! Sports and NFL.com among others. Follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.

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