UConn rolled past DePaul in its first game of 2024 Tuesday night, overcoming a slow start to handily defeat the Blue Demons 85-56. Here are some of the staff’s biggest takeaways from the Huskies’ second Big East win of the season.
Castle is cooking
Patrick Martin: Hand up, mea culpa, I’ve been dogging Stephon Castle’s shot too much. The yips don’t matter, for now, if he puts up lines like Tuesday’s 14 points, seven assists and four rebounds. There were whispers of it during the offseason, but we’re starting to see Andre Jackson 2.0, from a freshman. He is unparalleled on the roster in his ability to get into the paint under control. On a team that is often prone to settling for side-to-side ball movement, someone who can penetrate like Castle unlocks a whole new dimension for UConn’s offense. And with Donovan Clingan sidelined for most of January, UConn’s tempo will need to increase. Handing Castle the keys to the break means fewer stalled-out sets in the halfcourt. His defensive versatility is also going to be a reason why the Huskies can survive without Clingan.
The analytics are starting to come around, too; Castle is the third highest-rated freshman in Evan Miya’s Bayesian Performance Rating (BPM) and 44th-ranked player overall. He’s doing that with only one made 3-pointer on the year. Savvy coaches will start laying off and daring him to convert from outside the paint. But with Cam Spencer, Tristen Newton, and Alex Karaban all plus shooters, it's a bold gamble to pack the paint and leave them open.
Dan Madigan: I’m in awe of what Stephon Castle is doing. For someone who is almost certainly one-and-done, I am so impressed with his ability to seamlessly fit into arguably one of the most complex offenses in the country and his desire to pass up his shots for better shots for teammates. All of his shots against DePaul were well within the flow of the offense, and he is constantly crashing the boards and tracking down loose balls. I’m excited for him to be more aggressive offensively as the season progresses and re-establish himself as a consensus NBA lottery pick after his injury led to a somewhat slow start to what should be an impressive freshman season.
The bench is rounding into form
Martin: Provided everyone stays healthy, the Clingan and Castle injuries could be major blessings in disguise, as Solo Ball and Samson Johnson have been able to play extended minutes. Their accelerated learning curve has been choppy at times, but on the whole, they’ve been excellent rotation pieces that have performed admirably at roles they weren’t necessarily expected to hold heading into the season. Both are working out in real time that the game isn’t too fast for them and embrace their athletic gifts without limitations.
Hassan Diarra deserves his flowers too after a 14-point, five-rebound, and five-assist night. He has 38 assists to just 14 turnovers, which combined with his energy and point-of-attack defense, is exactly what a backup point guard should provide. He may have even played himself out of the ‘backup’ role and has carved out a spot as the complementary ball handler next to Newton at times.
Those three, combined with some more seasoning for Jaylin Stewart, create the makings of a solid bench that specializes in defense and energy. There’s no automatic Joey Calcaterra, but if Ball and Diarra can at least be respectable with their outside shot, UConn’s depth will be really shored up come March.
Small ball can work
Shawn McGrath: Headed into the season, I thought that the team needed a power forward. Alex Karaban, who starts at the position, is definitely more of a stretch four, which is great for how Dan Hurley wants to play, but leaves the team thin in the middle if the platoon at center is weakened for any reason. With Donovan Clingan out, Samson Johnson in and out of foul trouble, and Youssouf Singare relegated to end-of-game duty for now, Karaban, along with Jaylin Stewart, are the closest things UConn has to a center, forcing the Huskies to go ultra-small. While DePaul isn’t the most physically imposing team in the Big East, Karaban and Stewart were definitely giving some size on the inside and the team’s big run in the first half roughly coincided with Johnson’s departure.
The big man played just six seconds of the final 9:41 of the first half, departing with a one-point lead that would flip to a DePaul advantage on the ensuing possession. UConn then went on a 9-0 run in less than two minutes and by halftime, the hosts were up 19 and cruised to an easy victory. Stewart played a bit more than two minutes in that stretch, leaving Karaban to play in the middle for a large majority of that time. There are certainly teams against which it would be ill-advised to play Karaban at center for any stretch, let alone what he did against DePaul on Tuesday, but his performance showed that this is an arrangement that can work while Clingan is out of the lineup.
Madigan: I still think this team’s best small ball lineup probably involves Stewart in some capacity due to the freshman’s size and athleticism. But for teams without great size like DePaul, Karaban is more than suitable as the team’s small-ball center because the entire backcourt rebounds so well. The rebounding ability of everyone on this team really allows Hurley to mix and match lineups despite a shorter rotation than last year.