UConn men's basketball is a top-10 team again. Here's what Huskies must do to stay there

PORTLAND, Ore. — It won pretty, and it won ugly.

It beat a ranked team, a team that is now ranked and an injury-depleted team that is just plain rank.

The UConn men's basketball team couldn't have been any more impressive winning the Phil Knight Invitational. Like their prior five victories over a menu of cupcake opponents, the Huskies won every game by 15 points or more. They led Alabama by 15 in the first half on Friday night, allowed the Crimson Tide to tie it as late as midway through the latter half, then won by 15 anyway.

UConn's defense was unrelenting. The Huskies badgered Alabama's 6-foot-9 stud Brandon Miller, a possible NBA lottery pick, into 5-for-15 shooting and 18 relatively quiet points. They turned the Crimson Tide over 16 times in the first half alone. They beat Iowa State at its own game, out-sludging the foul-happy Cyclones until eventually breaking away with a burst of second-half offense.

The much-ballyhooed depth lived up to its billing. Or when was the last time a back-up center won a tournament Most Valuable Player award? Donovan Clingan, the 7-foot-2 center from Bristol, notched a double-double (15 points, 10 rebounds) off the bench on Sunday night. It's an incredible strength that Adama Sanogo, the preseason Big East Player of the Year, can go to the bench with foul trouble — or just for a rest — and the Huskies can not lose a step. Or, as on Sunday night, actually increase their lead.

"Being able to give Adama a break, because there's times when he goes 9, 10 minutes straight, is important for him and the team," Clingan said.

Sanogo scored just four points on Sunday but had 25 two nights earlier against Alabama. He's still the best player on the team. Jordan Hawkins is still the second best, even after playing just five minutes on Sunday after picking up his fourth foul on a technical just seconds into the second half.

"Teaching moment, learning moment for him," Dan Hurley said. "He'll learn from it and get better."

Tristen Newton scored 21 points in the first half on Thursday night against Oregon, then spent the rest of the weekend as a steadying force as a distributor and on-court leader (though he did have eight turnovers on Sunday). He could have been tournament MVP.

Alex Karaban could have, too. He wound up on the all-tournament team after averaging 9.3 points and shooting 46.3 percent from 3. The two-time Big East Freshman of the Week had to cede that award this week to Clingan, however.

Joey Calcaterra shot 60-percent from 3 and continues to bring other aspects of the game — passing, energy — off the bench. 

Then there's Andre Jackson, Jr., one of the most unique players in college basketball. After struggling through the first two games with more turnovers than points, he was everywhere on Sunday: 10 points, 13 rebounds, five assists, two steals, the Huskies' lone blocked shots and some athletic plays that defied description.

Even Hurley has trouble finding a comp for Jackson. Troy Polamalu, the former Pittsburgh Steelers defensive back, and an American Ninja were the best he could come up with Sunday night.

"This team reminds me of my last year at Rhode Island (2017-18), where we went nine-deep, and it was nothing but quality," Hurley said. "When you're this deep, you can survive nights when your two best offensive players gave us six points combined in foul-plagued minutes. It's a heck of a deep team."

And, for the first time in more than 10 years, a top-10 team.

While it may not seem this way right now, the Huskies will not go undefeated this season. You read it here first. Here are some of the remaining benchmarks that UConn needs to clear to remain a top-10 team and earn a No. 1 or 2 NCAA tournament seed:

Keep the momentum going

This doesn't appear to be a team that's going to start resting on its laurels. Not with Hurley as head coach. Not with a leader like Andre Jackson on the roster. Still, UConn must guard against complacency. The first eight wins have come with almost stunning ease. It won't always be that way. It starts on Thursday in a Big East/Big 12 Challenge bout with Oklahoma State at Gampel. The Cowboys aren't great (they lost at home to Southern Illinois) but they've got great size up front. And any Power 5 conference team is a tough foe.

Win a true road game

The first chance will be on Dec. 7 at Florida (sorry, Oregon in Portland doesn't count). At 4-3 with a home loss to Florida Atlantic on its docket, the Gators are hardly the Top 25-caliber team they were expected to be. They went 1-2 at the Phil Knight Legacy tournament, getting blown out by 29 to West Virginia on Sunday.

But they have an all-SEC center in 6-11 Colin Castleton, who averages 18.1 points and 8 rebounds per game. They have another former St. Bonaventure star (UConn faced two on Sunday against Iowa State) in guard Kyle Lofton. And it's never easy to win on the road, particularly against a Power 5 opponent.

Win a true road game in a truly hostile environment

Maybe that happens at Florida, though it's a football school and who knows how rowdy the locals will be for a disappointing, 4-3 team? It'll be games at Xavier (Dec. 31) and Providence (Jan. 4) that will be true tests of this team's mettle in the upcoming weeks. Freshmen like Clingan and Karaban have never experienced such games. Transfers like Newton and Calcaterra probably haven't, either. 

As for the returnees, the Huskies lost some of their toughest road games (Villanova, Creighton, Xavier, West Virginia) last season.

Beat Creighton

The Bluejays are a terrific program, but there's no excuse for UConn to be 0-5 against them since joining the Big East. Yes, Hurley beat Creighton in the first round of the 2017 NCAA tournament with Rhode Island. Yes, Greg McDermott may be the best coach in the Big East. Yes, this may be the best team McDermott has had in his 12 years at the helm.

But teams go 5-0 in three seasons against the likes of DePaul or Georgetown. And 7-0 would be inexcusable. UConn's first shot will be on Jan. 7 at Gampel, then again on Feb. 11 in Omaha.

Get to the Big East Tournament final

The Huskies seemed destined to get there in 2021 until they ran into (you guessed it) Creighton in the semifinals. Last year it was another frequent nemesis, Villanova, that knocked the Huskies out.

Villanova doesn't appear to be a threat this season. In this week's AP Top 25, Creighton is No. 7, UConn No. 8 ... and the only other team to receive a vote was St. John's, which earned one point. Xavier was surprisingly shut out, though the Musketeers are a good team.

Barring injury, anything short of a trip to the Big East tournament finals would feel like a disappointment for UConn this season.

david.borges@hearstmediact.com @DaveBorges