It was never pretty, but No. 1 UConn men’s basketball got its hands dirty and pulled out a 74-65 win over rival Providence in front of a raucous Gampel Pavilion crowd on Wednesday night. The Huskies moved to 19-2 overall and 9-1 in the Big East, good enough for sole possession of first place in the conference. Here are our staff’s biggest takeaways from UConn’s ninth-straight win.
Let the Bodies Hit the Floor
Patrick Martin: I needed a shower after that game. I fired up the highlights this morning and cued it to Drowning Pool’s Bodies. A slopfest. A whopping 48 total fouls, four technicals, and the average time without a foul at 48 seconds, per HuskyHops. It was an anthesis of the Xavier detonation. It shows that UConn can win ugly, and Hurley is always ready for a rockfight in the Big East. You can see how the team (lol Samson) responded below.
UConn runs the most intricate and beautifully-designed offensive playbook in college basketball.— No Escalators (@NoEscalators) February 1, 2024
Also, UConn’s head coach:
But it’s also another example of UConn’s offense struggling with physicality and quickness. Despite all of Hurley’s intricate sets, scripts, and counters on offense, when teams like Providence (and Villanova) can get up in their airspace, rhythm gets disrupted and 4-for-23 nights ensue.
Dan Madigan: There probably has not been a greater disparity in a long time than watching that game in person versus watching on TV. Neither viewing experience was pretty, but the Gampel crowd was one of the best I can remember post COVID-19 pandemic. It was ugly, referee heavy basketball that made me think of the old UConn-Cincinnati tilts in the late Big East/early Amrrican Athletic Conference days. Despite all the slop, it was an exciting game and the Huskies dug deep and gutted out the win. Impressive stuff from the No. 1 team in country as UConn navigated injuries and foul trouble to defeat a very solid Providence squad.
Defensively, the Friars are the first team I can think of that worked incredibly hard to deny Tristen Newton the ball with Jayden Pierre often face guarding Newton full court. It’s a little hard to tell amidst all the fouls and physicality, but I feel like it kind of worked as Newton was just 3-for-9 from the field. Newton is the key to initiating UConn’s methodical but efficient offense and I think the Huskies struggled to adjust to that early on. Fortunately for UConn, Cam Spencer is a capable ball handler and Stephon Castle seems to have taken another massive step forward. With some more reps of others initiating the offense and Newton playing off the ball (like he did last year for stretches), it’s a weakness that UConn should be able to patch up somewhat quickly.
Small Ball (and Sam) Save the Day
Martin: There’s nothing worse for momentum than two quick fouls, other than maybe getting two quick fouls to start each half. Providence rattled off a 10-0 run as soon as Donovan Clingan sat, and UConn faced its largest deficit since Butler on Jan. 5. Samson Johnson also was whistled with two quick fouls with about 10 minutes to go in the first half, but out of sheer necessity Hurley kept him in, especially as Alex Karaban went to the locker room after suffering an ankle injury.
Johnson did an excellent job battling those 10 minutes without getting a third foul. The lob threat comes and goes, but his athleticism on the high hedge is disruptive, and his sheer presence at the rim puts pressure on defenses. Factor in Karaban gutting out some time at the five with more encouraging Jaylin Stewart minutes, and the depth and versatility wrought from the early-season injuries to Castle and Clingan is clear.
Stephon Castle has arrived
Madigan: In our midseason roundtable, I predicted Stephon Castle had at least a few 20-point games left in the tank for what should be the final collegiate games of his career. Two contests later, Castle dropped a career-high 20 points against the Friars and was key factor in helping the Huskies win an ugly one. With Providence playing tough, physical defense, Castle was repeatedly able to get by his man 1-on-1 and score around the rim seemingly at will for most of the second half.
With the Friars daring him to shoot, Castle made them pay and hit two of his four attempts from deep. After a rough start to his season from three and overall concerns with his shot, Castle shot 38 percent (8-for-21) on 3-pointers in the month of January. Castle’s ability to score from everywhere on the floor should add another dimension to an already dangerous offense. There's arguably no one more talented on this roster than Castle, and while the foul trouble was an issue Wednesday night, he may be the key on both ends to this roster having the depth and balance it needs to return to the Final Four.
Martin: Those 4-for-23 shooting nights from beyond the arc — two of which were Castle’s — are a lot easier to swallow with Castle figuring out how to get to the rim at will for bailout baskets. He showed remarkable poise and patience in the lane, using his length, pump fakes, and footwork to find angles. Castle’s isolations and Tristen Newton’s ability to get to the line for freebies are the fail-safes UConn’s offense needs.
It’s a cliche that gets thrown around a lot, but the freshman really does have a ‘feel’ for the game that comes out when tracking down loose balls, getting deflections, or making the easy pass. Devin Carter got his, but Castle did not make things easy on him with a 6-for-18 shooting night. He’s never in the wrong spot, and every game his basketball intuition catches up with the speed of the college game. After Wednesday, he’s Evan Miya’s second-highest rated freshman per BPR, and NBA draftniks are scrambling to move him up the board.