The BYU and UConn men’s basketball programs enter March Madness with different seeds, different histories and different expectations hanging over them.

But they share a unique faith-related challenge: managing the health of Muslim players who are choosing to compete while fasting.

Muslim basketball players

BYU’s Aly Khalifa and UConn’s Samson Johnson, Hassan Diarra and Youssouf Singare are fasting from sunrise to sundown as part of their observance of Ramadan, which overlaps with the NCAA Tournament this year.

The four men won’t eat or drink water during their teams’ daytime March Madness games and will, instead, rely on early morning meals to sustain them through long, busy days.

Johnson and Diarra took on the same challenge last year, fasting for Ramadan as UConn worked its way toward the 2023 NCAA Tournament championship game, which it won.

But this year is different, since both men are now getting more significant playing time, according to the Connecticut Post.

“Johnson and Diarra are key components of UConn’s attack off the bench,” the article said, noting that Diarra won the Big East’s Sixth Man of the Year award.

Similarly, Khalifa is an important member of BYU’s squad. He’s been one of college basketball’s best passers this year, as the Deseret News previously reported.

Brigham Young Cougars' center Aly Khalifa (50) shoots over UCF Knights forward Thierno Sylla (31) during the Big 12 Conference tournament in Kansas City, Mo., on Wednesday, March 13, 2024. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

BYU player describes fasting

Khalifa had his first experience fasting during NCAA action at last week’s Big 12 tournament in Kansas City.

The big man shined during BYU’s win over UCF on Wednesday and spoke about what it was like to fast in an interview after the game.

“I felt good. I was a little tired obviously because of Ramadan, but it felt good to just go out and compete with the guys and get the win,” he told Jason Kinander of TSTV Sports, as the Deseret News previously reported.

But the next game brought new challenges. Khalifa suffered an ankle injury in the first half against Texas Tech and wasn’t able to return to action, in part because he can’t take pain medication during his fast.

“My body is tired. I was obviously hungry and thirsty still. I (fasted) yesterday, and that helped. I tried to keep the same mindset as yesterday,” he told reporters after the game, according to Deseret’s Jay Drew. “We didn’t come out as strong, and then I rolled my ankle, and I couldn’t take any medicine, obviously, because my ankle was hurt. It was just a combination of everything.”

Khalifa is expected to be healed in time to play in BYU’s first-round game on Thursday morning at 10:40 a.m. MDT. The No. 6-seeded Cougars are taking on Duquesne.

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UConn’s Muslim players

Like Khalifa, UConn’s Muslim players were fasting during their team’s conference tournament run.

During evening games, they could break their fast after sunset with some water, but they had to be careful not to eat or drink too much too fast and feel sick.

“I just ate a lot (Thursday) night, to have some fuel in my body,” Johnson told the Connecticut Post about the team’s Friday night win over St. John’s.

Johnson, Diarra and Singare will have been fasting for about nine hours by the time No. 1-seeded UConn takes the court Friday for the team’s first-round game against No. 16-seeded Stetson.

Many college basketball experts believe the Huskies will repeat as NCAA Tournament champions this year.