Fans of teams with five modern-era national championships are not likely to sweat any early-season loss, but Friday night’s four-point setback at Kansas will hurt simply because despite everything UConn had a chance to win at the end.
On Friday night, KU shot lights out, especially from three, to defeat the Huskies at Allen Fieldhouse in a top-five matchup. The Jayhawks frustrated UConn early and many of the Huskies’ top players were either battling an injury or a cold streak. The Huskies did a great job of staying in that game, but a lot of the credit for that belongs to Tristen Newton, who head coach Dan Hurley said had a “virtuoso performance” as he carried the team.
Here are our takeaways after the first big road test for Hurley’s squad.
Tristen Newton—The Best Point Guard in College Basketball?
Patrick Martin: It’s time to have the conversation. Not Tyler Kolek, not Tyrese Procter, it’s Tristen Newton. Let’s keep track of the receipts; the fifth-year senior didn’t even crack The Athletic’s Top 25 guards for the 2023-2024 season. He didn’t make Andy Katz’s Top 10 Playmaker Guards for the 2023-2024 season. No disrespect to Kolek or anyone else on the list, but UConn’s lead guard has been criminally underrated for far too long.
We say ‘has been,’ because yesterday’s masterclass thrust Newton onto the national stage. Casuals are just now getting hip to what Husky die-hards have known for a year now—Tristen Newton will go down as one of the UConn greats.
He is averaging 17.5 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 6.3 apg, 1.6 spg, shooting 47% from the field, 37.5% from three, and 84% from the free throw line. On a top 10 team. That’s National Player of the Year Territory.
On a night where many Huskies were blindsided by the raucous Allen Fieldhouse crowd and Kansas’ stifling, switchy defense, Newton put the team on his back with 31 points on six of nine from three to go with six rebounds. He kept UConn afloat until Donovan Clingan and company regained their sea legs.
On UConn’s final shot to win it, Newton made the right play, not the heroic one. He could have driven into the teeth of the defense, surrounded by a trio of Kevin McCullar, KJ Adams, and the 7’3 Hunter Dickinson. Forcing that look on the road wasn’t the play. Instead, Newton saw DeJuan Harris had overextended, Hassan Diarra set a solid screen, and Cam Spencer was open.
On two healthy feet, Spencer has a much better chance of making that shot, and UConn sneaks out of Lawrence with a win, all because Newton found the right guy.
What makes Newton one of the greats is he can be whatever UConn needs. Last night, the Huskies needed shot creation and someone to go get a bucket, until the final play. Maybe against North Carolina, they’ll need that steady table setter. On any given night, he can lead the team in scoring, assists, or rebounds. Maybe against Gonzaga he’ll be asked to pull his weight again in the scoring column. That’s the mark of a true point guard.
Gotta hit free throws (and draw them)
Aman: Donovan Clingan’s 2-for-4 performance from the free-throw line on its own isn’t bad, and neither is Tristen Newton’s 5-for-8 mark. But the Huskies hit just eight of their 15 free throws, only slightly over half. Cam Spencer was 1-of-3 and nobody else on the team attempted any free throws, which is also probably part of the problem. The Husky attack was not assertive enough and sometimes settled for outside shots. After the game, Newton credited Kansas’ defensive approach for getting them out of rhythm.
Karaban in a funk
Aman: One of UConn’s leaders has been a little off lately. Karaban is 2-for-15 from three in the last three games and 7-of-22 overall in the last two games. He doesn’t seem like he’s forcing it, but did deal with foul trouble against Kansas and had three turnovers against New Hampshire. It’s probably just a little cold streak but worth keeping an eye on.
UConn fought hard
Aman: It would’ve been easy to fold after a rough start with people hurt. But Hurley’s squad came back from an early deficit that was as large as 12 despite the adversity. The coach credited his team’s heart and said it has the potential to be as good as last year’s UConn team once it’s fully healthy and playing in March.
A great environment
Aman: UConn fans that showed up for this one were rewarded by one of the best experiences in all of college basketball and a home crowd that Hurley credited for being so “organized with fan involvement,” it rattled his players. It also looked like the Husky fans in attendance had a good time.
This is just about a perfect place to see a basketball game. I’m in awe.— Dan Madigan (@dmad1433) December 2, 2023
But I’m also not acknowledging any titles before 1939 I’m sorry. pic.twitter.com/RpUvtq29QU
That’s what Dan Hurley and Bill Self emphasized after the game, with Hurley going a bit further, throwing some shade back at the Bryant coach for calling out UConn, while pointing out that major schools like Duke and others have little interest in scheduling home-and-home series with other quality opponents.
The Duke and Bryant comments back to back are incredible. Hurley has been on fire in the pressers lately.— Dan Madigan (@dmad1433) December 2, 2023
I also honestly think UConn/Bryant is a lock to happen now just as a pure grudge match
That was a solid look at the end
Aman: You can make the argument that Newton should have taken the last shot. And that’s probably what UConn’s coaches wanted too, but they made the right play. Newton found Spencer and he had an open look. Spencer could have tried another pass or a safer two-point shot, but it was a split-second decision with five seconds left in the game. Nobody says it’s a crazy shot if it goes in. It almost did.
Cam Spencer no good on the good look from 3. #5 Kansas wins a thriller vs #4 UConn 69-65 in the Big East/Big 12 battle pic.twitter.com/ZWmBBg9VvM— NCAA Buzzer Beaters & Game Winners (@NCAABuzzerBters) December 2, 2023