Following a six-day hiatus, UConn men’s basketball shook off a tough loss to Xavier and rebounding with a convincing 90-76 win over DePaul in Chicago Tuesday night. The Huskies, now back at .500 in Big East play, may no longer have a shot at the conference regular season crown, but still have the ability to bolster their NCAA tournament resume and rebuild some momentum heading into the Big East Tournament.
Tristen Newton is out of his funk
Dan Madigan: After tearing it up at ECU and posting a strong start to his time at UConn, Newton struggled mightily early on in conference play, with the low point being a goose egg in a terrible home loss to St. John’s in mid-January. Since then, Newton has gotten back on track. He’s now scored double figures in four-straight games, and 20 or more points in two straight. As a player known for his ability to draw contact and get to the free throw line, he’s gotten back to his roots and drawn at least six free throw attempts in each of his last four games, including an impressive 8-8 from the stripe in the win over DePaul. In that span, Newton has drawn 31 free throw attempts and made 28, good for 90.3 percent.
There are still some wrinkles that Newton has to sort out, largely due to playing out of his natural position and being forced to take on the role as point guard in the UConn offense. His shot selection is lacking at times, and while he had zero turnovers against DePaul, he committed 12 in his previous five games. If he can continue to be smart with the ball and his hands and be aggressive on offense, he can alleviate a ton of pressure from Jordan Hawkins and Adama Sanogo and be a go-to guy in the offense when the Huskies need a bucket.
Ryan Goodman: Newton has had somewhat of a roller coaster year, which is emblematic of the team as a whole and not uncommon for a player who is on a brand new team and also saw a major increase in competition level from the prior year. He started off hot, establishing himself as a potential go-to guy over Hawkins in the beginning of the season after dropping a triple double on Buffalo and going 5-6 from deep against Oregon. He then lost himself a bit for a stretch and struggled to find his shot and create legitimate opportunities in the offense, but he has really hit a stride the past few games. Madigan pointed out that he’s been elite at drawing fouls throughout his career, and has also shot the ball from the line incredibly well (career 84.6% FT) and this was something that Dan Hurley had been missing over the some of the losses that UConn sustained.
There’s been a lot of discourse about who would be taking the hypothetical last shot at the end of a close game and while the answer should be Hawkins at this point, Newton is a close second in my opinion and not a bad option whatsoever if teams decide to swarm UConn’s star sophomore. He has really stepped up his game recently and may be the key to unlocking the Huskies’ ultimate potential.
Jordan Hawkins is a star
Madigan: We’ve waxed poetic about Hawkins plenty of times already in takeaways throughout this season, but I’m fearing it’s still not enough. The man is a star in the making. After starting the season as largely a perimeter-only threat, Hawkins has been aggressive getting to the rim when defenders run him off the perimeter on screens. The result? Sixty-eight free throw attempts in conference play with just eight misses in that span. In January, Hawkins was even better, shooting 40 percent from three on 55 attempts and 94 percent from the free throw line, missing just three free throws all month. We’re witnessing an elite shooter on an absolute heater right now, and I’m excited to see what the last few months of his college career look like.
Goodman: It’s very evident that something has clicked in Hawkins’ mind the past few games given his overall play and demeanor on the court. His confidence is at an all-time high right now and it’s been fantastic to see. He’s averaging 23.6 points per game over his last five and is visibly much more aggressive in attacking the rim and hunting his shot. Even when an initial look is cut off, Hawkins either takes it upon himself to win one-on-one or gives up the ball and immediately comes off another cut/screen-handoff to get a better look. In other words, he’s taking what the defense gives him most of the time, but sometimes he’s doing the opposite and both are working. Hawkins had 14 free-throw attempts against the Blue Demons — second to Newton’s ridiculous 17 attempts earlier in the season. He’s proving that he’s not only one of the best pure shooters in the country, but pure scorers overall. We all knew the potential was there but to actually see it on display consistently is something else. Keep on cookin’, Hawk.
Making free throws
Shawn McGrath: This is why free throws are important. In a 14-point game, UConn took 34 free throws and DePaul took 28, which is definitely within the random variance of a single game. The Huskies hit 30, while the Blue Demons converted on only 17. That is a difference of 13 points, one short of the final margin of victory.
DePaul shoots 76 percent on free throws as a team and UConn isn’t far behind, at 75.6 percent, both good for a top-50 mark in the country. There can be a ton of variability from game to game on converting free throws, but getting to the line is a skill, one that the Huskies haven’t always been great at.
Thirty-four free throws is a season-high and it can be feast or famine for Hurley, as several games have come in with single-digit totals. Higher totals come with getting the ball inside and playing aggressively. If UConn can continue to get to the line and make shots at the rate at which they’re accustomed, it will bode well for holding leads in the future.
Goodman: Something UConn has struggled with at times over the past few years has been closing out inferior opponents when they have a lead in the second half. They allowed Seton Hall to creep back in the game earlier this year which ended in a brutal one-point loss for the Huskies. With UConn up 19 in the second half last night with 12 minutes to go, it felt like the Huskies were about to blow the Blue Demons out of their own gymnasium a la the 2021 Big East tournament 34-point victory. DePaul then went on a 10-0 run and looked primed to challenge the Huskies on their home court for the rest of the game, cutting the lead down to eight with nine minutes remaining.
The UConn teams of the late 2010’s may have let DePaul claw all the way back into it but this squad held serve like a Big East contender would and punched right back, extending their lead back up to 19 and putting the game out of reach the rest of the way on the back of their top 3 scorers — Hawkins, Sanogo, and Newton — who scored all of UConn’s points in this stretch. In fact, no one outside of those three scored during the entire second half except for two Karaban free throws and a rare Alleyne three pointer, and those both came in the first three minutes. I don’t want to call them UConn’s “big three” because that takes away from some really significant contributions from other key guys, but on the offensive end, they most certainly are. They are the most trusted guys to go get a bucket when it’s needed most and make it a whole lot easier for UConn to bury bad opponents on the road.