HOUSTON — There is one big reason UConn is the comfortable favorite to cut down the nets on Monday night. Well, two.
Massive factors, in fact: Adama Sanogo and Donovan Clingan.
The Huskies' roster is a tantalizing combination of size, athleticism, defensive prowess, depth, etc. Shy of Final Four experience amongst the coaching staff and a high-level point guard play, UConn has just about everything you could ask for in a national championship contender.
No team has a duo like Sanogo and Clingan. These two humongous Huskies are what make this group worthy of valid comparison to all previous title-winning UConn squads. (Lest you forget, UConn currently sits at No. 1 at KenPom.com.) Intimidating as each is individually, Clingan and Sanogo do not play simultaneously due to being traditional centers. But it's because they swap out so methodically that UConn is a 40-minute matchup nightmare; each poses strikingly different head-to-head issues for opponents. After Sanogo has beaten you up for 10 straight minutes, Clingan comes in to dunk on your head and/or send back the soup.
How is Miami going to deal with this?
"He's one of our main concerns," Hurricanes assistant D.J. Irving said of Sanogo. "Him ducking in, posting up, them constantly trying to throw himplay the ball, and then Clingan comes in there. He's bigger than Sanogo and he's an even bigger load to deal with."
Sanogo is, in a word, a problem. At 6-foot-9 and 250 pounds, he's been the best player through the first four rounds of this tournament, tallying 80 points and 39 rebounds. He also developed a 3-point shot, hitting 35% this season.
At 7-foot-2 and 265 pounds, the freshman Clingan has been a revelation for the Huskies. Back in October, Huskies coach Dan Hurley hoped he'd maybe scrape 10 minutes per game from his big youngin', just to give Sanogo a breather. Instead, Clingan's playing nearly 13 minutes per game and his per-40 stats are gaudy. He'd be north of 20 minutes per night if not for Sanogo's rugged reliability and MVP status for Hurley's Huskies.
"The kid, just, he's got some magic about him," Hurley told CBS Sports about Clingan. "I think he played better in games than he did in those early practices. Now, some of it, he's gone against Sanogo, but he had a very regrettable closed scrimmage vs. Virginia, where I think it knocked him back and it got him really, really serious about getting himself ready to be able to give us minutes. I think that was like a humbling moment for him. He got his butt kicked. But, really, from that point, I think it was like a wakeup call for him."
Clingan being a quick study and having that treasured ability to play up to the moment when the lights turn on has made UConn's Final Four push and jump to No. 1 in multiple advanced metrics so … pre-ordained? On the eve of this 2023 Final Four, fourth-seeded UConn feels like a natural here, like this is how it was supposed to be.
What's fascinating about the Huskies is how differently they play depending on which big is roaming the hardwood. Put Clingan in, and the defense is outrageously good.
"From an analytics standpoint, our defensive efficiency is the best in the country and it's not close," UConn assistant Luke Murray said of UConn's defense when Clingan is on the floor. The Huskies allow only 89.7 points per 100 possessions in those situations, per Pivot Analysis data. When Clingan's on the bench, UConn's defense is pedestrian: 103.7 points per 100 possessions.
"That matchup, for us, it's going to be huge," Miami assistant Kotie Kimble told CBS Sports.
Then there's the rim protection. At 7-2 and with great drop-defense instincts and excellent weak-side recovery, Clingan's value practically makes it seem like UConn's playing 6-on-5 on the defensive end. When he's on the floor, teams shoot a putrid 41.2% at the rim, vs. 52.5% when he's on the bench, per Pivot Analysis.
What's interesting is what the data reveals about UConn's efficiency vs. what the tape can show in how Clingan handles ball-screen defense. Clingan's a bit more vulnerable than Sanogo playing in space, so he'll go into drop coverage. Watch the game on Saturday night and see how Miami tries to expose Clingan more than 10 feet from the rim.
Against a team like Miami that has so many good long-range shooters, it's going to present a tremendous chess match. The Hurricanes are small and not afraid to shoot from all over the floor, but will need to be accurate because they'll be outmatched size-wise.
Clingan is a constant mover. He's a pain to account for every time on both ends. Sanogo will wrestle with anyone, but keep this in mind: When he's on the court, teams still shoot 52% at the rim.
On offense, UConn thrives by playing through the post with Sanogo and going inside-out to get guys like Jordan Hawkins and Alex Karaban looks from deep.
When Sanogo leaves, Clingan gallops in and it's more ball-screen action on offense.
"He becomes this crazy lob threat and we play [teams] in a different way," Luke Murray said.
Deploying the two is the secret sauce to the Huskies' historic push to the national semifinals. UConn's won its past four games by 90 points and is the first team since Kentucky in 1996 to win its Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games by 20-plus points.
Against Miami, an intriguing matchup awaits. Is it possible we'll see more Clingan? He hasn't played more than 15 minutes since Jan. 11. Sanogo's biggest issue a season ago was fatigue, and Miami will no doubt try and gas him by halftime.
"There's definitely challenges because, for one, we're undersized in how we play," Kimble said. "We played small ball last year. We play smaller-ball this year."
"The one unique thing about them is how aggressive they are in ball-screen defense and how they work to not let you get post catches," Hurley said. "Some people just let you throw it and trap the post. They don't let you throw it in. It'll be interesting to see if Adama can get position against [Norchad Omier] the way he has against others."
Hurley said he wouldn't be surprised if Miami went super-small ball and played Jordan Miller at the 5, but no matter what Miami presents, he doesn't think his rotation tendencies will change — and that Sanogo or Clingan will be on the court the entire game.
If there is one guy who is built to handle the headache that both of these players present, it's Omier. He's arguably stronger than Sanogo and has the best rebounding faculties of any player here in Houston.
"The difference, I think, between Miami defensively and a lot of teams that you play against is Omier's one of the strongest if not the strongest frontcourt players in the country," Hurley said. "He fronts the post and he's super aggressive in ball-screen defense. They are really, really aggressive trapping in the hard-hedging."
Expect Miami to flood the lane once UConn tries to get Sanogo working. His production is the epicenter of a top-three per-possession offense, which rates only barely ahead of Miami's high-octane, multi-faceted shooting attack.
"I think Sanogo is a problem, but for us it's not just Norchad, it's the guy pressuring the ball on the passer," Kimble said. "It's the guy that's loading behind the ball that's guarding whoever's in the corner. It's got to be a team effort to guard him, and when he does get it, he's got to feel bodies because he has a negative assist-to-turnover ratio. As good as he is down there, he will turn the ball over."
Hard to see UConn winning a title without its bigs playing the biggest role in one or both of the games on this biggest stage of all. Sanogo is the guy who got them here, and Clingan might be the one who becomes the breakout star.
"On game night, he has that ability that great players have — he's able to take it to another level," Hurley said.
If Clingan finds yet another level, look out. UConn's been historically dominant through four games. The one thing Miami can't afford is UConn finding new ways to be even more ridiculous.