Adama Sanogo, UConn men’s basketball’s proud star center, is ‘on a mission’ this season

Photo of David Borges
UConn’s Adama Sanogo, left, looks to pass the ball while defended by Villanova’s Eric Dixon during the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden on March 11 in New York.

UConn’s Adama Sanogo, left, looks to pass the ball while defended by Villanova’s Eric Dixon during the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden on March 11 in New York.

Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images

STORRS — Adama Sanogo is a proud young man.

So when it leaked that a GoFundMe fundraiser had been started a few weeks ago to help Sanogo’s family, which had been displaced from their home in Mali by severe thunderstorms, Sanogo was grateful but a bit embarrassed that it attracted so much attention on social media.

Ultimately, he said in an Instagram post on June 1: “Me and my family are good ... do not donate money.”

On Wednesday at the Werth Family Champions Center, Sanogo still wasn’t too eager to talk about the situation. He noted that his parents, Awa Traore and Cheicke Sanogo, and his brothers and sisters in Mali are doing fine.

“It was raining, our house (collapsed), and they had to find a way to get them a new place to stay,” the 6-foot-9 rising junior said.

The fundraiser certainly helped alleviate the costs. NCAA rules only allow for enough money to be raised to cover costs of a specific incident.

“I want to thank everybody that gave money to my family,” Sanogo said. “Everything is good now, everybody is doing well.”

Sanogo was far more eager to talk about the upcoming season. He knows he is the odds-on favorite to be named Big East Preseason Player of the Year. He knows there’s a great chance he’ll be among the finalists for the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award for the nation’s top center for a second straight year. He knows he’ll be an All-America candidate.

And he’s embracing every minute of it.

“I love it,” said Sanogo, who averaged 14.8 points per game and led the Big East in rebounding at 8.8 per contest last winter. “I see other people saying, ‘This guy should be All-American, this guy shouldn’t be All-American.’ When I see that stuff, it gives me encouragement to go crazy next year. I see some people on the All-American team, I’m like, ‘Alright, cool.’ That motivates me if my name isn’t there.”

Sanogo’s name wasn’t there at the start of last season, when he was merely a preseason Big East honorable mention pick. At Big East Media Day in October, Sanogo will likely be preseason Player of the Year.

“That puts a little bit of pressure on me,” he noted. “That motivates me to show people that I may be the best player in the Big East.”

Sanogo is ready not only for that challenge, but to hear his name called in the 2023 NBA Draft. He knows the criticisms: at 6-9, not big enough to play NBA center, yet not nimble enough or a good enough shooter to play on the perimeter. He’s working (and improving) on his 3-point shot, his ballhandling, passing, face-up play and to be an overall more effective offensive weapon.

He’s also looking to get more lithe, get his weight down to 235 pounds. Sanogo has changed his diet, nixing pizzas altogether and cutting down his visits to hibachi restaurants from twice a week to once a month (OK, maybe twice).

“He’s on a mission,” Hurley said. “He’s going to attack this year like a monster, try to lead this team to a championship in the Big East, and then a deep tournament run. I think he believes he’s going to play himself into the NBA Draft this year. That’s the plan that we’ve had for him since he’s come to school here. Junior year, he’s going to put it all together and be a championship player and then be a draft pick.”

It isn’t easy for an international player so far from home, especially since foreign players aren’t able to capitalize on their name, image and likeness (NIL) the way U.S. citizens can. Hurley knows it’s been a tough few months for Sanogo.

“He’s had a lot going on. He’s had to make the decision on whether to turn pro and go make money for his family that way. He certainly had pressure making that decision, coupled with the tragedy with his family.”

With all that in mind, there is extra responsibility for Hurley and the entire program to help Sanogo in any way they can.

“We’re his lifeline here, we’re more than just his coaches. We’re part of his family. His relationship with (director of player development Mamadou Diarra) and Kimani (Young, UConn’s associate head coach) and the coaching staff and myself, the GA’s, everybody across the board, his teammates — we’ve got to be there for him.”

And they will continue to do that. But not before Sanogo returns to Mali next week for about a two-week visit with his family. Sanogo, who returned home briefly last summer, as well, will get the chance to rejuvenate and get recharged. He won’t have the facilities at hand that he does at UConn, but Hurley isn’t too worried about that.

“He’s going to get a chance to go home, do some things, see family,” the coach said, “then come back and get ready to lead us to a huge year.”

RIM RATTLINGS

 With some tough 7-footers in the Big East, including reigning Defensive Player of the Year Ryan Kalkbrenner of Creighton and Xavier’s Jack Nunge, Sanogo will benefit from muscling up against 7-foot-2 Donovan Clingan every day in practice.

“That’s good for both of us,” Sanogo said. “We’re going to make both of us better. It’s good to have him here.”

Clingan, the incoming freshman from Bristol, has drawn rave reviews in early workouts. He has lost a lot of weight, getting down to about 265 pounds — to the point where when Clingan sent a picture of himself to Hurley after being feted with an award in Bristol, the coach originally thought it was from two years ago.

“He’s a special guy,” Hurley said. “He’s going to be great.”

 Hurley is taking it a bit easier on the players during this Summer 1 session, which runs until the end of June.

“I think we felt last summer, we might’ve pushed a little bit too hard in Summer 1,” the coach confessed. “Maybe late in year, we didn’t have, across the board, the life to finish the season the way we wanted to.”

So, during this session, he wants players to “get where they want to be, physically” through work with the strength coach, work on individual skills and player development.

Then, when Summer 2 begins the first week of July, “we’ll immediately hit the ground running.”

Hurley doesn’t believe he’ll change his practice habits during the season, however. He thinks his team’s depth — the Huskies could go nine, maybe 10-deep — will help alleviate any fatigue issues they had last March.

 With the recent addition of grad transfer guard Joey Calcaterra from San Diego, the Huskies have 11 scholarship players. The NCAA men’s basketball limit is 13. Hurley said the team will be at 12 by the start of Summer 2, and could get up to 13 “if we can get players with high upside. We anticipate losing some guys to the NBA next summer.”

 Along with former player/student assistant Mamadou Diarra’s recent hiring as director of player development, the Huskies have also promoted Mat Johnson to scouting and video coordinator and Paul Wettemann to director of basketball administration.

 2023 wing Jayden Ross was on an official visit to UConn on Wednesday.

david.borges@hearstmediact.com