UConn reminded the world why this team is in the national championship conversation after a convincing win over No. 9 North Carolina at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night.
Despite dealing with a handful of injuries and welcoming back Stephon Castle for his third game of the season, the Huskies led for 36 minutes in a game that was hardly ever close.
Some takeaways from UConn’s Jimmy V Classic victory:
Spencer bounces back
Dan Madigan: Cam Spencer played through two toe injuries in the loss to Kansas, and while he had some key baskets, it was not his best night. He shook that off and led the charge in the win over UNC, scoring 16 first-half points on his way to dropping 23.
It’s by far the most aggressive Spencer has looked all season in terms of looking for his shot. For as good of a shooter as he is, he is constantly looking to make the extra pass, but with the Tar Heels giving him so much perimeter space he knew he had to call his own number.
Spencer went 3-9 from three while grabbing seven rebounds and six assists with zero turnovers. He also created one of the best UConn GIFs in recent memory.
With a cupcake game against Arkansas Pine Bluff looming before a big matchup out west against No. 7 Gonzaga, Spencer may see limited minutes or sit out entirely against the Golden Lions to ensure he’s healthy for the Zags.
Patrick Martin: Cam Spencer is a sociopath. And I say that with the utmost respect. Every successful team needs at least one dude who is a little unhinged. UConn fans know they have on in their coach. Spencer’s intensity has been compared to Hurley’s before. He’s a dude with no social media presence at all. The dude who was reportedly inconsolable after losing the three-point competition on First Night, who, per Hurley, drops f-bombs as nouns, adjectives, and verbs, mostly at himself, in practice. A dude who most label as a ‘slow, white, geeky chump’ but who will rip your heart out and hand it to you in a doggie bag. He’s Billy Hoyle, an on-court manifestation of Dan Hurley.
But he’s not a dirty player. Instead, that hyper-competitiveness is channeled inward. As Hurley put it, Spencer is just so hard on himself. Last night was his first technical ever in a college game. Afterward, he sheepishly apologized for it in true ‘sorry bro, tiger got out of its cage’ fashion.
Cam Spencer on his technical foul: "That's my bad... But sometimes you get locked in the game and the adrenaline kicks in"— Storrs Central (@StorrsCentral) December 6, 2023
Hurley: "He gets a shitload of 'em in practice" pic.twitter.com/UF1AQtxi73
Armando Bacot was asked about the dustup, saying: “Yeah, he was saying things he wouldn’t say to me if we were in the park or something. But it’s all good. He had a great game, so credit to him.”
I can confidently say the same incident would happen anywhere, anytime. Spencer’s former teammate at Rutgers has said as much.
And it’s not that he loves to win, it’s that he hates to lose. You could see last night how much his injury-hampered shooting night at Allen Fieldhouse ate at him:
“I definitely came in with a lot of motivation and anger to just help the team in any way that I could. I thought we just raised our intensity level from that Kansas game with a lot of little things. So I’m just really proud of the team, everybody showed up today.”
To do it all in goofy-looking all-black shoes with white shin-high socks, against one of the college game’s more image-driven programs, is even more hilarious. The Huskies haven’t had to worry about culture in a while thanks to the precedent set by the staff, so it’s not like Spencer’s competitiveness is a rising tide. You have to be a little crazy to play for Dan Hurley. But Spencer might be the first player that is actually crazier than his coach, and UConn is better for it.
Solo Ball Coming Into His Own
Goodman: The freshman combo guard has been thrust into starting duties due to Castle’s injury and has played solid minutes. With how many scorers Dan Hurley has, Ball doesn’t need to be the third or fourth option on this team and he’s played his role relatively well thus far. He boosts the perimeter defense with high energy and anticipation and provides some spot rebounding and scoring. Last night he had a bit of a coming-out party in the Garden, notching a career-high of 13 points, including 5-8 from the field and 3-6 from three.
Early on, Ball was rushing things on offense, trying to force up shots that he probably could’ve passed out for a better look. Against UNC you could really see the growth on that end of the floor. Taking shots in the rhythm of the offense, being aggressive when it made sense, and even taking a page out of Newton’s book with a bailout three. He’s only shooting 27 percent from downtown this year but he may be starting to find his shot and that is scary for opposing teams, especially when Castle is fully back and Ball is the first option off the bench.
Madigan: It was inevitable, but Dan Hurley is clearly using a much shorter overall rotation than before. After going 9-10 deep at times in the tournament last year, Hurley used seven players in the loss to Kansas. Obviously, Stephon Castle would have been No. 8 if healthy, and that eight-man rotation (aside from 30 seconds of Youssouf Singare) is what got the job done against the Tar Heels.
That current rotation leaves freshmen Jaylin Stewart and Jayden Ross on the outside looking in. They will both certainly get plenty of burn against Arkansas Pine Bluff, and are still not even 10 games into their college careers, but those two are still likely to be contributors in some way during Big East play.
Goodman: The rotation Hurley has crafted in the early part of the season has looked great. The eight guys who are seeing consistent minutes are gelling wonderfully. Last year, they really only played eight guys consistently with Diarra sort of falling out of the rotation at times, so it’s not all that far off from how we looked a season ago.
The starting five combined for 76 points and only three turnovers, against a top-50 KenPom defense. North Carolina isn’t the best at turning people over, but that is just a ridiculously efficient night against a very good basketball team. Diarra led the team with only two turnovers, scoring six points and delivering four assists. He looks like a completely different player than last season - the kind of guy who can come off the bench for a national championship-level team and make winning plays, à la Lasan Kromah or Joey Calcaterra. This year Diarra can be that guy. He and Newton are one of the most efficient on-court duos in the nation, according to Evan Miya.
UConn is elite
Aman: Just going to conclude with something very obvious: UConn is really good. This year’s team, after losing three NBA players, and having multiple key guys injured to start the season, has given Kansas and UNC all they could handle, losing a close game on the road and beating the tar out of another.
At full strength, UConn is an absolute unit. A wagon. A monster. It’s got many different kinds of versatile scorers, big guards, two difference-making big men, NBA-caliber talent, depth, and an extremely well-coordinated attack. They’ve also got some real dogs, like Spencer, Tristen Newton, and Alex Karaban. Those guys have the “it” factor.
It’s an incredible thing that Hurley and his staff have done. After winning the national championship, they have another team capable of winning it all.