UConn erased a seven-point halftime deficit to secure its third win in a row Friday night. The No. 4 Huskies, who now sit at 13-2 overall and 3-1 in the Big East, picked up a gutsy victory despite not playing their best basketball in the first 20 minutes.
Some thoughts after the Huskies’ 88-81 win over the Bulldogs.
Tremendous coaching performance
Aman: You have got to hand it to Dan Hurley and his staff. They’re down a starter, their other big is playing well but gets into foul trouble, and other guys may not be at 100 percent due to illness, but they schemed through it. The Huskies shook off a lackluster first half on many dimensions (turnovers, three-point shooting, getting to the FT line, rebounding, post defense, perimeter defense), reversing course in all of those categories in a pristine second half. These are signs of a well-coached team with strong leadership among the players as well.
Steph Castle. Wow.
Patrick Martin: The five-star freshman delivered one of the most impressive performances from a freshman I’ve ever seen live. James Bouknight’s 19-point effort against Xavier in Charleston comes close, but Castle is on a better team and doing more of the little things.
Lineup luxury is having two guys in Castle and Tristen Newton who can lead the team in scoring, assists, or rebounds on any given night. But it goes beyond the stats. Hurley used Castle all over the court last night—as the head of the snake on defense, the ‘small-ball’ five —I put that in quotes because Castle corrected me postgame, noting that that lineup isn’t really ‘small’ with the length and switchability everyone has.
It’s great to see him confident as we approach crunch time in the regular season. UConn went to him on the block a few times, which is so dangerous because of his passing. Teams won’t be able to sag off him a la Andre Jackson if that one-dribble midrange pull-up continues to fall.
The one caveat here is that Butler doesn’t do defense. Their KenPom defense was no. 107 before last night, and their starting unit is allowing a 59.5% eFG%. But as Castle pointed out postgame, the Huskies have so many weapons that defenses keyed in on him will have to then account for all these other threats.
Dan Madigan: Castle really is just incredible. He’s shown an ability to handle the jobs that Andre Jackson used to take care of and has a lot of offensive ability as well. The talent is so obvious but he also plays incredibly hard, routinely crashing the boards amongst bigs and diving on the floor for loose balls. He doesn't handle himself like a megastar; Hurley has repeatedly noted that Castle maintains a great attitude and is very coachable.
The Fellas (Newton, Karaban, Spencer)
Aman: This is the core that is going to get UConn through the Clingan injury. On Friday night, they were the Huskies’ leading scorers and stepped up in other ways too. Newton’s shots weren’t falling but he got to the line and also kept distributing, with five assists. Karaban hit 4-of-6 from three and was involved on both ends of the court and the glass. Spencer was his usual self but did it in big moments, including a huge offensive rebound in the final minute followed by a three to essentially seal the game. These guys can ball, and they’re also doing a good job as leaders of the team.
Madigan: There are just so many ways this trio can beat you. All three are lethal shooters who need to be respected, and all three are more than comfortable blowing by defenders for easy buckets in the lane if opponents close out too hard. They’re all elite competitors who will do anything to win, albeit all with slightly different demeanors. This is a really special group, and these three along with Castle have the potential to take UConn very deep in March once again.
Jaylin Stewart Come on Down
Martin: Jaylin Stewart can get UP, and he has controlled, fluid athleticism that was not advertised as a recruit. You can see it in warmups, and it's starting to show in how he finishes in the paint, he’s smooth, under control, and deceptively quick.
While his +/- last night was the worst on the team, five points in 11 minutes with some first-half run was a huge step forward for the freshman. Some dudes are just too talented to stay nervous or in slumps.
He pulled down a rebound in the first half and you could see his instincts take over. He didn’t just get rid of it as soon as possible to a ball handler. He took one dribble forward, advanced it to a streaking Castle, and the break was on. Plays like that show that once he figures out where he needs to be, his hoop intuition — thank you, Seattle basketball — will take over.
A three-ball finally went down, his teammates seemed to look for him more within the flow of the offense, and he’s an active defender. As the smaller lineup becomes A Thing, his versatility is going to be leaned on this month.
Small Lineup Thriving
Martin: The two-week break gave Hurley and the coaching staff time to tweak the small ball strategy, and it seems they found actions that work—Karaban and Castle in pick and rolls. As long as the former is attacking downhill on the dribble, that’s two players who can make dribble, pass, and shoot decisions intelligently. And that’s not even accounting for Tristen Newton and Cam Spencer.
These lineups are a white-knuckle ride defensively, for sure. Mistakes were made doubling, subsequent rotations were missed, and foot speed was exploited. On top of that, Big East refs seem to love whistling Karaban, and freshmen never get the benefit of the doubt. But with Stewart looking ready to handle more minutes and Hassan Diarra smoothing out the edges to his game, there are plenty of levers Hurley can pull to make small ball work.
Hassan Diarra - bench man of the people
Madigan: I’m so impressed with Diarra’s growth this season. He has taken his game to another level and brings not just a spark on defense, but offensively as well. He’s shooting well enough from deep (32 percent) that opponents have to respect him, and he is one of the best finishers around the hoop in traffic on a team loaded with them. His toughness and energy are perfect for Big East play, and it’s so fun to see his improvement after barely playing in the tournament last year. The talent has always been there — Diarra was one of Hurley’s first big recruiting targets at UConn, but initially chose to go to Texas A&M — and he’s now making an impact night in and night out for UConn.