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What to know about UConn, Maryland’s opponent in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament

Maryland's men's basketball coach Mark Turgeon and senior guard Darryl Morsell talks about the team celebration after being selected for the NCAA tournament.

The Maryland men’s basketball team’s opening-round game against Connecticut on Saturday will be the first postseason matchup between the two programs since their legendary game in the 2002 Elite Eight, in which Maryland won, 90-82, as it went on to win the national championship.

It also serves as a reunion of sorts for Terps coach Mark Turgeon and Huskies coach Dan Hurley, who had a heated exchange at the end of a game in the 2015-16 season when Hurley coached at Rhode Island.

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But more importantly, it will be an opportunity for two proud programs to recapture some tournament success; Maryland hasn’t reached the Sweet Sixteen since that 2015 season and UConn is back in the tournament for the first time since then.

The Baltimore Sun spoke with Dom Amore, UConn men’s basketball writer for the Hartford Courant, to learn more about Maryland’s opponent in the NCAA tournament.

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Describe UConn’s path to the NCAA tournament this season.

UConn had the usual problems with COVID disruptions. They lost two weeks of prep in November, then their foray into the Mohegan Sun bubble ended up with just one game played. So their only significant nonconference game was against USC, a quality win without which they might not be here. The season was divided into three phases: with James Bouknight, without him, and then with him back joining a supporting cast that grew without him. UConn is 6-2 in this third phase, with two wins over Georgetown.

Where does UConn excel?

UConn’s calling card is defense. Hurley likes to pressure, and he has the depth to do it and absorb fouls. Also, he has the rim protectors that allow his guards to take chances. But mainly, hard, tough defense and rebounding have been UConn’s strength. On offense, when the 3s fall, it opens things up for Bouknight and things can look unstoppable. They have guards who can penetrate and high-level offensive rebounding.

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Where does UConn struggle?

When it gets dicey for UConn is when players get caught standing around watching Bouknight, or Bouknight tries to do too much himself. They’ve struggled to find the right mix between having their best player make plays, but not having him forcing the issue. UConn’s big men, like all big men, can get into foul trouble. When that happens, the defense can become lax.

Who is a player who isn’t a star on the team but could be an X-factor?

You know about Bouknight. R.J. Cole and Tyrese Martin have become solid secondary scorers and Adama Sanogo has become an important cog in the machine. But to me, the X-factor on this team is always Tyler Polley, an elegant 3-point shooter. If he can come off the bench and hit a few, it really elevates the team, much the way Niels Giffey did for the 2014 champs. When he’s cold, UConn doesn’t have another true go-to shooter at the perimeter.

Maryland has had to play a lot of small lineups this season, but the Terps were a finalist last year for forward Adama Sanogo before he chose UConn. What has he brought to the Huskies as a freshman?

Sanogo has had a huge impact, far greater than the coaches expected, I believe. He has exceptional skills for a young big, great touch and craftiness around the basket. He plays with a great motor. He displaced a three-year starter in senior Josh Carlton, now his backup, and got better throughout the season. The last game, the loss to Creighton, may have been his best game, but he had to sit too long with foul trouble. In short, he has proven to be a huge get, second only to Bouknight among Hurley’s first batches of recruits.

NCAA tournament first round

NO. 10 SEED MARYLAND VS. NO. 7 SEED UCONN

Mackey Arena, West Lafayette, Ind.

Saturday, 7:10 p.m.

TV: CBS (Chs. 13, 9) Radio: 105.7 FM

Line: UConn by 3

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