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Xavier takeaways: Hassan Diarra is an unstoppable force of human nature

The reserve guard has been coming up big as of late.

NCAA Basketball: Connecticut at Butler Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports

Despite a second half comeback and a last-second scare from the Musketeers, No. 4 UConn came out of Cincinnati with another impressive road win, taking down Xavier 80-75. Here are some of our staff’s biggest takeaways from the Huskies’ fourth Big East win of the year.

Hassan Diarra is the straw that stirs the drink

Dan Madigan: Here at the blog, we have been beating the drum that Hassan Diarra is the x-factor on this UConn team for awhile now. What we didn't realize at the time was that as good as Diarra has been defensively, he has emerged as a legitimate outside shooting threat. Since the clocks turned to 2024, Diarra is 6-for-8 from deep. He is never going to be Cam Spencer from beyond the arc, but the fact that he is hitting from long range means defenses can no longer sag off him on the perimeter.

Diarra’s energy on both ends has been infectious all season. His tenacity as a defender was already well known, but his energy has brought the offense up another level all season too. He has shown a consistent ability to finish in traffic and is now stepping out and making open threes. For a backcourt loaded with two legitimate All-American candidates and a future NBA lottery pick, Diarra has played well enough to force his way into significant minutes every night.

Patrick Martin: Diarra was often derided last year, fairly so, for his erratic decision-making and questionable shot. Those two negatives outweighed the steady contributions he made on defense, and its the reason his minutes cratered during UConn’s title run. Fast forward to now, and Diarra has only 17 turnovers for the entire year, for an assist/turnover ratio of 2-to-1. His 10 3-pointers on the season already surpasses last year’s seven. He single-handedly turned the tide in UConn’s last two road wins, and this steady performance gives Hurley so much lineup flexibility; spacing isn’t compromised if he’s out there with Stephon Castle, and his tempo meshes perfectly with Tristen Newton’s.

Last night in the first half, Samson Johnson didn’t get his hands on a loose ball quick enough, resulting in a Xavier offensive rebound and putback. Diarra immediately got in Johnson’s face, not in a nasty, bullying way, but more of a “wake up” way that only a respected leader can do. Johnson nodded, faced the music, and the very next play drew a foul for boxing out. A few possessions later, Diarra gave Johnson a hard-to-catch bounce pass in the lane. Back on the bench a few minutes later, the two dapped up, with Diarra tapping his chest to “my bad” the bounce pass.

They were small sequences, but when factoring in his second-half outburst, really highlight the leadership role Hassan has on this team. He’s not a fake leader puffing out his chest, finger pointing and running around all barking instructions but not pulling his own weight. He backed up his intensity and leadership with accountability. The Huskies are fortunate to have him as a fourth guard.

Quality minutes from Jaylin Stewart

Madigan: Jaylin Stewart may have only had two points in the win over Xavier, but the 13 minutes he played were crucial to the Huskies securing the win. With Alex Karaban literally bleeding and Samson Johnson mostly ineffective all night, Stewart stepped up as the team’s small ball center and held down the fort in the post. Stewart has a little more size and length than Karaban and can bang with bigs down low in the post a little better than Johnson, which made him a perfect option to try and stop or at least contain Xavier inside, which gashed UConn for 30 points in the paint.

Stewart has consistently been earning 10 or more minutes per game since the start of 2024, and his ability to impact the game on both ends makes him a valuable piece off the bench for a Huskies squad currently lacking size. If Stewart can continue to improve his defense, he should be able to carve out more minutes ahead of Donovan Clingan’s return.

Martin: We talked about this on the Fast Break Podcast, but Stewart’s steady minutes are incredibly encouraging, even if the box score doesn’t show much. UConn’s sets on offense are so complicated, with actions, counteractions, and counteractions for the counteractions. With so many weapons on the team, Stewart’s not going to get plays run for him, yet; that’s life at a top five team in the country as a freshman. But like Madigan said, his size and versatility are already college ready, and we’ve seen glimpses of his ability to score off broken plays or in transition. It’s way too early to project next year, but all signs are pointing to Stewart making a leap his sophomore year, when he gets some plays called for him.

Top Dogs?

Shawn McGrath: UConn hasn’t been at the top of the AP Poll since the 2008-09 season, when the Huskies spent most of February in the No. 1 slot. However, losses to Pittsburgh knocked them from their perch each time they took the spot. Currently at No. 4, each of the teams in front of them (and the one right behind them) each suffered losses to unranked squads between Tuesday and Wednesday.

No. 1 Purdue lost by 16 on the road to Nebraska; No. 2 Houston fell by four away from home to Iowa State; No. 3 Kansas got topped by five in Orlando by UCF; and No. 5 Tennessee went down to Starkville and was bested by Mississippi State. Each of those schools play on Saturday. Two (Purdue vs. Penn State, Kansas vs. No. 9 Oklahoma) are at home, while the others (Houston at TCU, Tennessee at Georgia), get back on the road.

While those four were unable to conquer a road game against a KenPom top-100 league foe, all but one of which were in the top 50, UConn was able to secure a victory against No. 41 Xavier. Now, it’s highly possible that a home game against Georgetown, a contest in which the Huskies could be favored by 20, is the only thing that stands in the way of the program’s first No. 1 ranking in 776 weeks. Surely nothing bad can happen, right?

Madigan: I just want to get this out there: This Georgetown game has every making of a trap game. Ed Cooley’s Hoyas at home at the XL Center on Sunday at 12 p.m. with an absolute showdown against No. 22 Creighton looming next Wednesday at Gampel Pavilion. UConn cannot look past this Georgetown team and think it can coast to No. 1 heading into next week — Georgetown played the Huskies very tough in Washington, DC last season and while the Hoyas have a mostly new roster, they can’t be taken lightly.