UConn battled against a feisty Villanova squad on the road to snag a one-point victory in Philadelphia Saturday night. With two wins this past week, the Huskies should remain at No. 1 in the AP Poll during their eight-day break. Here are some of our staff’s biggest takeaways from UConn’s seventh Big East win.
Dan Madigan: After a ripping hot start, UConn did not exactly play its best basketball Saturday night but still held off a strong effort from the Wildcats to secure a win. As reigning national champions and the No. 1 team in the country, the Huskies continue to receive opposing teams’ best efforts night in and night out. Despite not playing its best basketball, the team leaned on its stars, made stops and scored when it needed to in order to get out of Philly with a win. The result? Sole possession of first place in the Big East, another week as No. 1 and an right-day break to help star big man Donovan Clingan recover even more as he works back from a foot injury.
We’re starting to see this team dig deep when it needs to and just find ways to win basketball games. Some nights, it’s Cam Spencer or Alex Karaban going off from deep. Other times, it’s another masterful performance from Tristen Newton, who got into the paint at will and put together another incredible stat line with a 25-point, six-rebound and three-assist performance. This team has always had the talent, but the perseverance when things aren’t going perfect are what makes this team a true national title contender yet again.
Leave Him Open
Patrick Martin: There’s nothing worse than playing pickup and hearing someone go ‘let him shoot,’ or ‘we’ll take that.’
Once more last night — and identified in our game preview — Villanova sagged off Stephon Castle, Samson Johnson, and even Donovan Clingan to some measure, packing the paint and mucking up the blender of off-ball screens, rescreens, and pindowns that UConn puts defenders through. It forces the three wide open non-shooters to make a decision; even if they pass up the shot and run the sets, that split second indecision of ‘should i shoot this’ is all good defenses need. In an offense predicated on nonstop movement, one pause can derail an entire set. Castle struggled with that decision-making in the first half despite hitting one three, but was much much better at attacking the space in the second half.
We saw Hurley counter this last year with moving Andre Jackson off-ball into a weakside cutter, and giving Adama Sanogo the green light on threes. The former can be done with Castle, but don’t bank on Johnson/Clingan letting it fly. It will be interesting to see what wrinkles Hurley and the coaching staff introduce to maintain the elite spacing their Kenpom no. 3 offense has.
Dan Madigan: Castle doesn’t have many flaws in his game — that’s what makes him a potential lottery pick — but outside shooting is certainly something he can improve. Fortunately for him and the Huskies, the mechanics are good, and he has show an ability to hit midrange shots. The threes will come, and I think if teams continue to sag off him, he will make enough to make them pay. He’s shooting just 20 percent on the season but is 3-11 in his last three games. In an offense with as many shooters as the Huskies have, thats respectable as a fourth or fifth option and should force defenses to play him more tightly going forward.
Big and switchy
Martin: We also saw the Wildcats switch everything one through five last night, which is another worst-kept secret on how to slow down the UConn offense. Kansas did this expertly, and Villanova was effective as well. When you have not a lot of size disparity from point guard to center you can just switch everything and blow up the action. That’s why the Huskies were starting so many sets last night so far from the basket—nobody was able to get any separation on cuts and coming off screens. When all of that action is getting blown up 35 feet from the basket, you need a downhill attacker who can get to the rim off-the-dribble and break up that ball pressure. If there’s one thing UConn lacks, its that, outside of Hassan Diarra, who was a key part of the closing lineups last night.
The good news is that not a lot of teams have the personnel that Kansas and Villanova have; an endless supply of big, switchy wings that can guard any position on the perimeter. Marquette has that, which makes separation from them in the standings so important until those late-season scraps.
Newton was the savior last night for his ability to force his way into the lane and hit tough midrange shots. But you can bet the coaching staff is deep in the film process now trying to figure out countermeasures so Newton (and Spencer) doesn’t have to bail them out again.
Madigan: Like Patrick said, the book is out on how to beat the Huskies, but it’s also much easier said than done. Only a few programs in the country have the speed and versatility to truly switch everything, and throwing Clingan firmly back in the rotation throws that for a major loop anyways. Even with stingy defense from Villanova Saturday, the Huskies offense still was impressive, averaging 1.12 points per possession - a higher number than its decisive win over Creighton earlier in the week. Special players like Newton, Spencer, Karaban and Clingan make it much easier for UConn to overcome even the toughest of defenses, and it was very impressive to see them carry the load for stretches Saturday night, even if it isn’t the best long term offensive strategy.