Busting Brackets

Big East Basketball: Preview and keys to Xavier vs. UConn matchup

The Xavier Musketeers look to regaining their footing in the Big East, while UConn looks to continue their pursuit of back-to-back National Championships.

Connecticut v Butler
Connecticut v Butler / Michael Hickey/GettyImages
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(4) UConn Huskies 13-2 (3-1) 

Expectations were high heading into a new season of basketball at the University of Connecticut. Coming off of a National Championship win over San Diego State, fans and analysts alike wondered if Dan Hurley and Co. could replicate this success in back-to-back seasons.

The team came out of the gates possessed to do just that. 

Strong out of conference wins over Indiana (77-57) and Texas (81-71), both in the Mecca of basketball at Madison Square Garden, set the tone for the early portion of the schedule. UConn remained undefeated through the first seven games of the campaign, until a tough matchup on the road against top-ranked Kansas (69-65) derailed hopes of a perfect season. However, a pair of statement wins over North Carolina (87-76) and Gonzaga (76-63), both on a neutral court, reaffirmed the belief that this team could once again make a run in March.

Incoming transfer Cam Spencer has been a revelation for this squad. After losing a major three-point threat in Jordan Hawkins over the summer, the former Scarlet Knight stepped into the starting lineup seamlessly and never looked back. Spencer’s .443 3P% and 2.9 3PM both rank second in the Big East, all while contributing 15.1 PPG in 32 minutes of action.

UConn’s returning pieces have also played a key role in this run. Spencer’s backcourt mate Tristen Newton is a prime example of this team’s internal development. After averaging 10.1PPG last season, the senior guard now shares the Huskies’ scoring lead with 15.1 PPG. Newton’s court vision has helped unlock his team’s offence, serving up 5.7 assists per game and good enough for third-best in the Big East. While only measuring in at 6’5”, the guard has found a way to secure the sixth-most defensive rebounds in the conference with 5.6 per game.

Up the middle, sophomores Donovan Clingan and Alex Karaban have excelled with a larger opportunity. Clingan’s 7’2” frame has allowed him to feast on the interior, bringing his field goal percentage all the way up to .632, fourth-best in the conference. The center elevated his scoring from 6.9 PPG in his freshman year to 13.9 PPG this season, while Karaban made a similar jump from 9.3 PPG to 14.8 PPG.

The Huskies headed into Big East play still riding the high of their shimmering 10-1 record and looking to carry that momentum into their first matchup against Seton Hall. Early in the second half, disaster struck as Clingan hobbled over to the sideline with an ankle sprain. The Hall pulled away down the stretch to seal the 75-60 victory at home, and the team’s starting center has been held out ever since.

The Huskies, however, didn’t seem to get the memo.

UConn went on to win their next three matchups over St. John’s (69-65), DePaul (85-65), and Butler (88-81). Even without their big man in the middle, the undermanned roster managed to out-rebound each opponent they faced, including a matchup against conference-leader Joel Soriano. The Huskies uptempo style and pace punished teams on the fast break, outsourcing opponents 45-24 during the stretch,

Third-year forward Samson Johnson slotted into Clingan’s spot in the starting five and provided an efficient touch inside. Johnson now leads the Big East in field goal percentage with .738, tied for fourth-best in the nation. Alongside the 6’10” big man, Dan Hurley also inserted rookie guard Stephon Castle back into the starting lineup. Over the past three games, Castle leads his team in +/- with a margin of +50.

Now facing a date with the Musketeers on Wednesday, UConn is in prime position to build on their momentum within the conference.