UConn enters Big East tourney confident, on a 5-game winning streak

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Danny Hurley greeted each of his starters as they left the court in the closing seconds of UConn’s critical win over Villanova. He hugged Andre Jackson Jr., his Swiss army knife, with a good slap on the back. He exchanged celebratory gasps with Alex Karaban, his powerful forward. He hugged his star man, Adama Sanogo, for another hard effort at the low post.

Part of Hurley’s excitement had to do with how well the Huskies are playing — five straight and eight straight entering the Big East Tournament after a 71-59 win against an old rival at the Wells Fargo Center saturday night Another part was probably related to the removal of a monkey in the form of a wild cat on Hurley’s back.

Hurley entered the season with a 1-5 record against Villanova since taking over at Connecticut in 2018, though some of those games were non-conference matchups when the Huskies were still mired in the American Athletic Conference. The only win during that stretch came on a night when Hurley was ejected late in the first half; assistant coach Kimani Young guided UConn the rest of the way. Even this year’s win against Villanova in December came with a couple of asterisks: Hall of Fame head coach Jay Wright is no longer roaming the sidelines; and the Wildcats’ best player, Justin Moore, was still recovering from a torn Achilles.

So Saturday night was special for Hurley, for his players, for a program that believes it can finally make another NCAA tournament run. The Huskies will arrive in New York City with the same confidence they showed during a 14-0 start to the season.

Jackson continues to evolve

On the morning of Dec. 31, UConn players and coaches woke up to an undefeated record and the No. 2 national ranking. They were in a hotel near the Cintas Center in Cincinnati before a highly anticipated matchup with then-No. 22 Xavier, whose coach, Sean Miller, had installed one of the most efficient offenses in the country during the first season of his second stint with the Musketeers.

But by midafternoon, after a stunning 83-73 victory over Xavier, it was one of Miller’s defensive plays that propelled his team to a victory and changed the tenor of the Big East title race of this year Miller and his coaching staff instructed any player guarding Jackson to sink to the perimeter and hide in the lane, clogging up space for Sanogo, the league’s preseason Player of the Year. Jackson, a notoriously inefficient 3-point shooter (29.1% for his career), took the bait. He attempted a season-high 14 shots, including an inexplicable 12 hoists from beyond the arc, and harpooned possession after possession for the Huskies.

Since then, most opponents have implemented a similar strategy to defend Jackson, albeit to varying degrees. He shot just 15-for-46 from the field during a stretch in which the Huskies lost six of eight games between late December and late January, when UConn fell out of contention for the regular-season Big East crown. While it wasn’t the only problem on a team that briefly seemed to forget how to defend, Jackson’s lack of confidence and assurance on offense left the Huskies playing four-on-five on that end of the floor.

Much of UConn’s late-season resurgence can be tied to Jackson’s better understanding of how and when he can contribute to an offense that still ranks in the top 10 in the nation in efficiency, an improvement that the coaching staff also deserves credit. . Embracing his role as a cutter, passer and pacemaker in transition, Jackson has posted an offensive rating over 115 five times in the last seven games. It’s a mark he eclipsed just twice during the Huskies’ aforementioned winter skate.

The breadth of his skill set was on display again during Saturday’s win against Villanova: a coast-to-coast layup for UConn’s first basket of the game; a tap pass to Sanogo for an easy steal; a defensive rebound turned explosion in transition that ended with a drop pass to Tristen Newton for a 3-pointer; a couple of triples for the second half.

He finished with 10 points, seven rebounds and five assists in his fifth straight performance.

“The things that he does for the team — leadership, energy, defensive skills — unless he has the steals and the blocks, they don’t come through,” Hurley said earlier this week after a big win over DePaul.

“And I’m really happy for him because he’s the best guy you can coach.”

Jordan Hawkins carries UConn

Jordan Hawkins carries UConn

Jordan Hawkins scored 24 points Saturday night to lead UConn to a 71-59 victory over Villanova.

All aboard the Karaban caravan

When the season began, Hurley and his staff envisioned a three-headed attack with Sanogo, sophomore shooting guard Jordan Hawkins and former East Carolina guard Tristen Newton, one of the most coveted backcourt options in the transfer portal last spring.

Now a senior, Newton averaged 17.7 points, five assists and 4.8 rebounds per game in his final season with the Pirates. He attempted 42 more field goals than anyone on the team and relied more on volume (12.6 shots per game) than efficiency, especially from beyond the 3-point line where he scored a 33.3% on 4.8 attempts per game.

While Newton has played much better in the second half of the season (entering Saturday’s game averaging 12.1 points over his last 11 games), the adjustment hasn’t always been smooth. He fell short of double figures in scoring 13 times in his first 19 games with the Huskies and endured a particularly brutal stretch of 30 turnovers in 13 games that included the January losing streak.

As Newton adjusted to the highest level of competition, redshirt freshman Alex Karaban became a reliable scoring option alongside Sanogo (nine points, nine rebounds vs. Villanova) and Hawkins (24 points against Villanova). Karaban was a four-star prospect in the 2021 recruiting cycle who graduated high school early to enroll at UConn midway through last year. He practiced with the Huskies from January to March, but never appeared in a game.

However, Karaban’s first dose of experience prepared him for a starting role from the start of his first full season in Storrs. His combination of size (6-8, 210 pounds) and perimeter shooting (39.4 percent) made him an ideal stretch four that never infringed on Sanogo’s space down low, and Karaban nailed 14 3-pointers in their first eight games. He quickly earned the first of five Big East Freshman of the Week honors in mid-November.

Coming off an 11-point effort in a blowout win over DePaul earlier this week, and coming off a 16-point outburst against Providence last week, Karaban again played a critical role for the Huskies on Saturday at night. He scored 16 points on an efficient 6-for-8 shooting to keep Connecticut going before Hawkins got going in the second half. He turned his only offensive rebound into a layup that gave the Huskies a double-digit lead at 54-43 and scored again on the next possession to keep the Wildcats at bay.

It was an ideal way to end the regular season for a player who many believe is a shoot-in for the league’s Rookie of the Year award.

Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Cohen13.

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