Behind Tristen Newton, Huskies continue to show they’re the team to beat

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This might be hard to believe: The Connecticut Huskies played as the No. 1 team in the AP Top 25 poll this week for the first time since 2009. Dan Hurley’s team passed both tests in the grinding Big East, dominating Creighton and following it up with a 66-65 win over Villanova on Saturday night at the Wells Fargo Center.

Did the Wildcats give the top-ranked Huskies a good battle? Absolutely, but it felt like UConn, which opened the game on an 11-0 run, was always going to find a way to win. The reigning national champions have won seven straight to improve to 17-2 overall and 7-1 in the Big East, all alone in first place in the league. 

The reason why it felt like Connecticut never lost control is the same reason why this blue-blood program won its fifth national championship since 1999 last April: 

Tristen Newton. 

The fifth-year senior point guard, who many doubted at this time last year, has been nothing short of excellent in the last 32 games for this program, dating back to last year’s national title campaign.

Tristen Newton gets crafty with a floater to give UConn the lead over Villanova

Tristen Newton gets crafty with a floater to give UConn the lead over Villanova

On Saturday, Newton scored 19 of his game-high 25 points in the second half to go along with six rebounds and three assists. When UConn was down 42-41 with just over 13 minutes remaining, the Huskies’ do-it-all guard delivered 10 of his team’s next 12 points, including two long-range triples to silence the Philadelphia faithful. 

Hurley told FOX Sports last year that Newton was the key to UConn’s championship run because the team had all the pieces surrounding him. 

“We looked at our team back in November, and it was all about Tristen Newton,” Hurley said following the Huskies’ 76-59 victory over San Diego State in the national championship game. “If the point guard play could be high-level and excellent, that with what we had with the shooting, two centers and Andre Jackson, that we could have a special season. Did we think it could end here? Winning in dominant fashion in six games of the NCAA Tournament. I didn’t think that was possible.” 

Newton’s impressive play has carried over into the current campaign, where he leads a UConn team that ranks third in the country in offensive efficiency this season, according to KenPom. 

Rutgers transfer Cam Spencer and sophomore Alex Karaban are the steady shooters for this team, combining for over 30 points per game, and it is Newton who sets them up so well. Veteran guard Hassan Diarra is supplying a lift off the bench for this team, while a loaded freshman class headlined by Stephon Castle continues to blossom and should keep getting better, which is a scary thought.

Now that star center Donovan Clingan is back after missing five games with a tendon injury in his right foot, this team truly does check every box.

As if the Huskies weren’t hard enough to stop over the last two seasons, they have outrebounded their opponents 49 times in the last 58 games. In Clingan and athletic junior big man Samson Johnson, UConn has developed another dominant 1-2 punch down low, similar to what we saw last year when Clingan paired with Adama Sanogo. 

Samson Johnson throws down a strong two-handed alley-oop to extend UConn’s lead over Villanova

Samson Johnson throws down a strong two-handed alley-oop to extend UConn's lead over Villanova

There have been a lot of questions about who is the true No. 1 team in college basketball this season. 

That could change hands, but I do know one thing right now: The road to the national championship goes through Storrs, Connecticut. The Huskies have as good a shot as any of becoming the first repeat national champions in college hoops since Billy Donovan led Florida to those heights back in 2006-07.

John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.


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