Ain’t no rest for the weary. No. 5 UConn men’s basketball will play its second straight top-10 matchup away from home on Tuesday, as the Huskies will battle No. 9 North Carolina at Madison Square Garden as part of the Jimmy V Classic. This is the first time UConn has played top-10 AP Poll teams in consecutive games since the 2014 NCAA Tournament (No. 6 Villanova and No. 9 Iowa State). It’s the first time it’s done so as a top-10 team since the 2005-06 season, when the No. 3 Huskies played No. 9 Arizona and No. 8 Gonzaga in the 2005 Maui Invitational.
Radio: UConn Sports Network
Odds: UConn -5.5, over/under 153 (odds via DraftKings)
KenPom Predicted Score: UConn 80, North Carolina 76 | 62 percent win probability
All stats as of the start of play on Tuesday
North Carolina is one of the few programs in modern history that has gotten the better of the Huskies. UConn is just 1-5 against the Tar Heels in a series that began Dec. 5, 1990 with a single game at the Dean Smith Center and also includes a matchup in the Elite Eight of the 1998 NCAA Tournament. The top two seeds in the East Region played in Greensboro, and North Carolina (the de facto home team) prevailed, 75-64. The two schools played a four-game series between the 2001-02 and 2004-05 seasons, as well. UConn won Jan. 19, 2002, which was the only time the Tar Heels visited Gampel Pavilion.
What to watch for
UConn took Kansas’ biggest punch on Friday night and despite being down by as much as 12, the Huskies were down seven at the half and had nearly an 80 percent chance to take down the Jayhawks inside nine minutes to go. Had Cam Spencer, who was playing on a bum ankle, been able to hit on a good look in the corner in the waning seconds, then Dan Hurley’s team would have likely come away with the victory.
The Huskies lost consecutive games on two occasions last year, both of which were in conference play. They haven’t lost back-to-back non-conference games since 2018-19. It should be a pretty pro-UConn crowd at Madison Square Garden, as the first part of the doubleheader is Florida Atlantic vs. Illinois. Despite North Carolina’s high rating in KenPom, it’s a winnable game, as the Tar Heels lost to Villanova, a program that has seeming had the wheels fall off in recent weeks, and beat Florida State at home by eight the last time out. It’ll be big for UConn to battle back and snag a win.
Tristen Newton for Wooden?
UConn would not be where it is without Tristen Newton. The guard from El Paso, Texas is No. 6 in KenPom’s Player of the Year standings and has taken his game up a step in the six games Stephon Castle has missed. He’s been the KenPom MVP in four of the Huskies’ eight games and has scored in double-figures in seven contests. His crown jewel was at Phog Allen Fieldhouse on Friday. When nothing else was going right, Newton was there to score and keep his team in the game.
He finished with 31 points, six rebounds and two assists against two turnovers in 38 minutes. He was 6-for-9 from beyond the arc and made the right decision to pass the ball to Spencer for an open look in the corner at the end of the game. This was made harder by how well Newton had been playing and how Spencer was clearly gutting out an injury, but it was still an open, good look that would have won the game.
Newton has been a great success out of the transfer portal and he’s proving even more important as this young season rolls on.
Another battle down low
Donovan Clingan won’t get any rest either. The sophomore drew 7-foot-2 Hunter Dickinson against Kansas and did pretty well on the inside, as Dickinson was 3-for-8 on inside shots, though he was 3-for-4 on 3-point attempts and pulled down nine rebounds. Clingan had just eight points on 3-for-7 shooting, with seven boards.
Senior Armando Bacot awaits in the middle for North Carolina. Clingan held Dickinson, who’s the best rebounder in the country, at 12.2 per game, below his average, but Bacot is also in the top five, at 11.8 per night. After getting up to speed post-injury, Clingan has run a gauntlet of strong inside presences. Dickinson didn’t beat UConn inside and it’ll be important to make sure that Bacot isn’t able to clean up the boards and help get second-chance points, or prevent the Huskies from extending possessions.
The injury report for UConn is long. Stephon Castle has missed the past few weeks after a knee procedure and is expected to return, albeit on a minutes restriction. However, Cam Spencer (toe), Donovan Clingan (toe) and Alex Karaban (thumb) each are officially game-time decisions. Hurley said all three will want to play, but the staff will see how they look in shootaround before determining whether they’ll make an appearance.
If the Huskies are down three starters, with a fourth on a minutes restriction, North Carolina will be a more than formidable opponent. Regardless, the quartet will be hobbled, which will make depth a key.
77.4 - North Carolina is an exceptional free-throw shooting team, as that mark is in the nation’s top 30. It’ll be important to keep the Tar Heels off the line, as more than a quarter of the team’s points comes from the charity stripe.
3.15 - The Tar Heels are the fourth-most experienced team in the country, with an average of 3.15 years of Division I experience. Both Bacot and RJ Davis played for the national championship in 2022. They won’t be shy about the bright lights in Midtown Manhattan.
36.0 - 3-point shooting may be another way North Carolina can secure a win in its first Jimmy V Classic since 1999. The Tar Heels are an above-average outside shooting bunch, but the Huskies have permitted teams to shoot 37.2 percent from beyond the arc, which is one of the worst marks in the country. Harrison Ingram shoots over 45 percent.
30.9 - RJ Davis takes 30.9 percent of his team’s shots, which is in the top 100 in the country.
5 - This is the fifth time UConn is playing in the Jimmy V Classic. The Huskies have never won, falling to NC State (2012), Maryland (2015), Syracuse (2017) and Indiana (2019). Jim Valvano was an assistant coach for the Huskies from 1970-72 under Dee Rowe.