With the No. 1 UConn men’s basketball team at roughly the halfway mark of the 2023-24 season, our staff decided to take a look back at the Huskies’ first half and hand out some accolades.
The Huskies are 17-2 overall, with losses to just Kansas and Seton Hall, and are in first place in the Big East. After dealing with injuries to two key starters, UConn appears to be rounding into shape and looking like a legitimate contender once again.
Shawn McGrath: This is a bit backward, but I think it’s Donovan Clingan. The Huskies were up in the top 10 in adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom when he went down with a foot injury on Dec. 20 against Seton Hall. By the time he returned, just five games later against Creighton, that ranking was down near No. 50. Just two games (and less than 40 minutes from Clingan) later, Dan Hurley’s team sits at No. 29.
Even ignoring the numbers, we saw how the complexion of the game changed when he entered for the first time against the Bluejays. Tristen Newton had just hit a 3-pointer to tie the game at 12-12. Just over two-and-a-half minutes after Clingan entered the game, the Huskies were up nine with all the momentum inside a frenzied Gampel Pavilion. It’s become really clear how valuable Clingan is to this team.
Dan Madigan: When UConn has needed a bucket, no one has stepped up and delivered more than Tristen Newton. The former ECU transfer came back to the Huskies this year and immediately established himself as the alpha dog in this offense. He posted his third triple-double at UConn in the win over Manhattan and now leads the program all-time in that statistic. Newton is great at getting to the free-throw line, facilitating the offense, and showing up in big moments. This season’s performance has vaulted him firmly into the All-American discussion and the conversation of great UConn guards.
Patrick Martin: Alex Karaban. The Huskies had a lot of changeover from last year’s team, even if there wasn’t much of a talent drop-off. As Stephon Castle, Cam Spencer, Samson Johnson, and even Donovan Clingan acclimated to their new roles, Karaban has maintained remarkable consistency from freshman to sophomore year. His 3-point percentage (40.2 percent) is the same, while his points, field goal percentage, free throw percentage, and rebounds have all increased with only three extra minutes and three-and-a-half extra shots per game. He is a model of consistency that does all the little things that aren’t realized until he sits.
He’s a top 12 player in Evan Miya’s Offensive Bayesian Performance rating, has shown the ability to hit clutch shots (Texas and Villanova come to mind), and is versatile enough for small ball. If UConn doesn’t win those games without Clingan — made possible by Karaban/Castle playing the five for extended stretches — we’re looking at an entirely different narrative for the season. Perhaps most importantly, he’s shown an ability to impact the game if his shot’s not falling, with smart cuts, timely offensive rebounding, and a renewed aggression attacking the rim.
Ryan Goodman: The easy way out is Newton, and while he is one of the favorites to win Big East Player of the Year, I’m giving it to Cam Spencer. The loss of Jordan Hawkins left a gaping hole in terms of perimeter shooting, and while Spencer is nowhere near the athlete Hawkins is, he’s filled in seamlessly as a lights-out marksman, leading the conference in three-point percentage at a ridiculous 45.3%. Spencer is light-years better than any of us expected and his competitive fire is second to none. I can’t wait to see him in the NCAA tournament.
Tucker Warner: While he’s not technically the top scorer—only tied with Tristen Newton—I have to go with Cam Spencer as the team MVP so far. Spencer has been the team’s best player on the offensive end, at this rate debatably the program’s best shooter since Ray Allen, while adding steady interior ball movement without turning the ball over. His effort on the defensive end is impressive as well. He ranks third on the team among rotation players in Defensive Box plus/minus, consistently providing pressure on the opponent’s second-best perimeter scorer, and leads the Huskies in steals.
McGrath: Hassan Diarra has been it for me. He’s always been a great defender but was borderline unplayable last season in games where the Huskies needed to score, with an 85.9 offensive rating according to KenPom that only fell against highly-ranked competition. This year, he’s in the top 100 in the country in offensive rating, is a 40 percent 3-point shooter, and has maintained the defensive ability that brought him to UConn from Texas A&M. Not bad for a guy coming off the bench.
Madigan: It has to be Diarra, who has been such a spark plug off the bench on both ends for the Huskies, especially in conference play. The energy he brings is infectious, and his improved offensive game this year has vaulted him firmly into the rotation for the Huskies.
Martin: I agree with Shawn/Dan here, but Psycho C needs some love. Cam Spencer gets the X-factor award just because when he’s unconscious from beyond the arc and gets his best Dan Hurley impression going, UConn becomes a fully armed and operational battle station. He’s right behind Evan Miya in OBPR, and leads the team in Bart Torvik’s O-rating. But for as valuable as he is, he’s prone to an occasional off night from downtown. That’s fine, because there’s always Newton and Karaban to pick up the scoring slack. But he’s the X-factor because it’s so tough to beat UConn when he’s having a 5-for-7 type of night from 3-point range, with all the weapons around him.
Goodman: Diarra has certainly improved the most from a season ago but Samson Johnson has done an admirable job taking over the starting five spot when Clingan missed some time. Johnson, along with Castle, are the keys to winning a second consecutive title. Hurley doesn’t have the same one-two punch in the frontcourt as he did last season, but if Johnson can continue to play his high-energy lob threat role without fouling too much off the bench, UConn will be in a great position to take home more hardware.
Warner: The biggest difference maker for the Huskies is the same as it was at the beginning of the season: can Stephon Castle grow into a freshman who transcends his age? The case for Castle is that he’s capable of defending the opponent’s best scorer, has a knack for ball distribution, and adds an element in the fast break that UConn typically doesn’t throw at defenses. The case against him is that he struggles with his outside jumper, doesn’t yet defend up a position, and as a result of both of those, doesn’t fit into every lineup UConn can put on the floor. This may sound like sophomore-year Andre Jackson, but it’s unlikely the NBA-caliber Castle returns for a second season in Storrs, let alone a junior year. Can Castle approximate Jackson’s contributions by March? Signs are pointing to yes, but he’ll need to continue to up his game.
Most impressive performance
McGrath: Tristen Newton against Kansas. It came in a loss, but where is UConn in that game without him? He put up 31 points, going 10-for-18 from the field, including 6-for-9 from beyond the arc. He hit big shot after big shot, many late in the shot clock. He even made the right decision to pass the ball to Cam Spencer on the final possession, when he easily could have tried to take it himself and ride his own hot hand. The Huskies needed his “virtuoso performance,” as Hurley called it, to survive and nearly pull off the win in a tough road environment and Newton more than delivered.
Madigan: To answer Shawn’s question, I think Newton’s 15-point, 10-board, 13-assist triple-double has to be mentioned, but I am going in a different direction. How about how true freshman Solo Ball stepped into the starting lineup without missing a beat when Stephon Castle was injured? Ball joined the starters and provided critical minutes on both ends in wins over Indiana and Texas at Madison Square Garden, and dropped a career-high 13 points in a win over a tough North Carolina squad. While Ball has fallen out of the rotation since, his ability to step right into the starting lineup and keep the offense and defense cruising showed how special this recruiting class can be.
Martin: I’ve got a renegade answer here, just because it sticks out to me. Samson Johnson’s 15-point, eight-rebound breakout vs. Texas. The Longhorns are up off the mat, having just saved their season with two wins against top-15 teams, which boosts that UConn dub back to where it was when Texas was ranked. It wasn’t clear what the Huskies had behind Donovan Clingan entering this season. Johnson was getting rave reviews in practice, but it’s not wise to put much stock into that.
Texas was down its two big men and went small, which was nightmare fuel for Donovan Clingan, who was still working his way back from his first foot injury. In steps Samson, with a career-high 27 minutes off the bench. His length and mobility were a revelation and completely tilted a game UConn was quickly losing grip of back in its favor. It highlighted the embarrassment of riches at Hurley’s disposal this year; how many teams can just dust off another 6-foot-11 big man and have him terrorize the rim as a backup?
It’s been a learning curve since then for Johnson, with highs (his 16 points against St. John’s) and lows (Georgetown’s Supreme Cook eating his lunch) but a lot of that was being asked to do things outside his immediate skillset. With Clingan hopefully back in the fold, Johnson can play freely with his 15-20 minutes, not worry about fouls, and resume his trajectory for next season.
Goodman: UConn would’ve been down by 20 in the first half against Kansas if not for Newton going nuclear. The Jayhawks were shutting down everything offensively, and Newton’s heroics were the sole reason that game was even close. Hitting four deep 3-pointers in that first half and following it up with another 15 points in the second at Allen Fieldhouse has to be the top performance.
Warner: For me, the most impressive performance has been the team’s overall offense. The Huskies are currently a team with only two outside shooters: Spencer and Alex Karaban. Newton can threaten any defense, but he’s shooting only 30.7 percent from deep on an increased workload. Hassan Diarra is shooting 40 percent, but on only 30 attempts, typically all wide open, and without a prior track record of success. None of the freshmen are converting even 30% of their three-pointers. So how is this team still scoring so often? Playing to their strengths offensively, trusting the defense enough to dominate the offensive glass, and not forcing the ball anywhere it doesn’t need to be. That’s how you overcome limitations to become an elite offense.
McGrath: I’m surprised at how methodical the offense has been and remained so efficient. At 64.5 possessions per game, this will be the third-slowest Dan Hurley team ever and the slowest UConn team since 2014-15. With better recruiting, it seemed as though last season was the start of a movement forward from a grind-it-out type of team, with a tempo rating near No. 200. Instead, at No. 332, this would be the lowest-rated team in the metric for both Hurley and UConn in the KenPom era. Despite milking the shot clock more, this year’s offensive metrics are in line with last year's, and some are even better.
Madigan: The quality of the offense is just insane. So far, it is ranked No. 3 in efficiency per KenPom, the same as last year's title squad, but this year's rating (124.0) is noticeably higher than last year’s (120.8). That's insane! This is a team that lost three starters to the NBA. Instead of finding direct replacements, Hurley was able to bring in nearly perfect fits like Cam Spencer and Stephon Castle and continue to develop players like Newton, Diarra, and Alex Karaban, who have taken their games to entirely new levels this year. It's incredibly impressive to see.
Martin: I’m surprised UConn is the No. 1 team in the country right now. I’m surprised that there aren’t better teams out there! Every time I turn on TV, I see some very talented, but very flawed, teams.
I’m notoriously bearish and pro-field when predicting UConn’s postseason chances. But seriously, who beats this team when fully healthy? Purdue? I’ll take UConn’s supporting cast any day. A rematch with North Carolina? The Huskies would take that any time. Kentucky? The Wildcats don’t do defense. Houston is the most obvious challenger, but the Cougars always seem to step on a rake and don’t have an answer for Clingan.
All of those teams have very obvious flaws that can be exposed come tournament time. UConn’s flaw? Bad knees and slow footspeed on the perimeter. Maybe a little bit of depth issues with freshmen. Those are champagne problems compared to the field. I’m surprised the college basketball world let the Huskies assemble this much talent and fun for two years in a row.
Warner: Besides Diarra’s hot shooting (he shot 18.9 percent from three last year!), I think the biggest surprise is that the Huskies haven’t needed many contributions from freshmen outside of Castle to become one of the nation’s best teams. With a shallow bench and the loss of three NBA-caliber players, there were a lot of fair questions about whether this team could repeat last year’s performance. So far, they’re exceeding it, and players like Solomon Ball and Jaylin Stewart have shown potential but haven’t offered much production so far, while Jayden Ross and Youssouf Singare have played sparingly. It’s a huge testament to the work ethic of each returning player, as well as the transfer Cam Spencer, that each was able to individually raise their game in big ways this offseason.
What to watch for
McGrath: This UConn team has the best resume since 2008-09. This is the latest the Huskies have owned at least a share of first place in the conference since that season, as league play has been a slog, particularly at the beginning, for much of the past 15 years. They’re ranked No. 1 in the polls for the first time since 2009 and the advanced metrics like them too, as they’ve spent the entire year in the top 10 of KenPom. This year, NCAA Tournament sites couldn’t be more favorable to a Northeast team at the top of its seeding band. Brooklyn is hosting first- and second-round games, while the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight are in Boston.
UConn is all but assured of spending the first weekend in Brooklyn at Barclays Center. While Boston is unclear, most of the contenders for a 1-seed are closer to the other Regionals, which are in Dallas, Detroit, and Los Angeles. Watching for favorable NCAA Tournament locations and a Big East title are the two big things on the list.
Madigan: I still don't think we have seen Stephon Castle’s best just yet. There have been flashes, and the star freshman has been transcendent for stretches since returning from his injury, but I believe there is still another gear for him to unlock. His size, skill, and effort are already impressive and he can continue to be a matchup nightmare offensively when he looks to beat defenders off the dribble. I could easily see a 20-point game or two from him as he closes out what will likely be his first and only college season.
Martin: Donovan Clingan’s feet. That is all.
Goodman: Definitely Castle. He hasn’t needed to shoot the ball from beyond the arc much but 5-for-24 is bad and teams are starting to sag off more. The Georgia native still has all the ability in the world and is a matchup nightmare given his size and quickness. He’s going to have some big-time performances in conference play.
Warner: If any of the non-Castle freshmen—likely Ball or Stewart, but any of them—can make a big improvement between now and March, I’d call the Huskies the runaway favorite to win the championship. The biggest question the team has facing them is depth, and there’s no guarantee that the two non-starters on big hot streaks can continue their impressive performance so far. If another ballhandler like Ball or another switchable wing like Stewart can add to UConn’s ability to run different looks at their opponent, or even just provide breathing room in case another bench player has an off night, that would do wonders to a team looking to repeat as champions without the benefit of a similar core to the previous year’s roster.