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College Basketball

UConn Might Be Unbeatable When Locked In On Defense

1:03 PM EST on January 18, 2024

UConn’s Donovan Clingan high-fives a teammate after scoring as the UConn crowd behind him goes wild
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The game was close. Despite ripping off an early 14-2 run, Connecticut led Creighton just 23-19 with seven minutes left in the half. The Huskies looked like they might be in a battle in their first game as the AP No. 1. But then UConn locked down on defense and stretched the lead to 11 by halftime. The game ended in a 62-48 rout that was not even as close as that score indicates. By the end, the defending men’s college basketball national champions looked positioned for another run in 2024.

Hurrdat Sports’ Jacob Padilla laid out the Bluejays’ offensive futility. They were down four with 6:55 left in the first half, then scored just 11 points in the next 19 minutes. “At the 7:15 mark of the second half, the Jays trailed 52-30,” Padilla writes. “In the 19:39 in between, Creighton scored 11 points on 3-of-24 from the field (1-of-12 from 3) and 4-of-4 from the free-throw line with nine turnovers.”

The difference on D was the return of UConn center Donovan Clingan, who had six points on 3-of-8 shooting, five rebounds, two assists and two blocks. He’d missed the last five games with a foot injury he suffered in UConn’s last loss, a 75-60 drubbing at Seton Hall on Dec. 21. Though he played just 16 minutes last night, Clingan completely altered Creighton’s offense. He checked in with the score tied at 12 and UConn scored seven straight.

“I feel good,” Clingan said. “I got a couple of days of practice in, I’ve been really working on my conditioning, running up and down the floor, getting my touch back. It felt good, just to go out and battle the big guys in front of the home crowd.” (That crowd was extra rowdy because it was $2 beer night.)

Without Clingan, UConn had allowed a bunch of second chances. In an 80-75 win over Xavier a week ago, the Musketeers had an offensive rebounding rate of 47.5 percent. In the game where Clingan got hurt, Seton Hall rebounded half of its misses. Creighton doesn’t crash the glass all that well, but the Jays had just five offensive boards last night, and their second-worst OR% of the season.

A look at Clingan’s first run since December shows how much of a difference he makes. Creighton had an inbounds play the first possession after Clingan entered. He wasn’t even facing inbounder Baylor Scheiermann, but his presence helped create a wild throw that led to a fast break. Clingan and Tristan Newton forced Frederick King to pick up his dribble on the next defensive possession, which ended with a low-percentage three-point attempt by Steven Ashworth. The Huskies pushed it up the court, and Clingan was fouled before he could hit an easy layup. After that, he stuck with 6-foot-9 sharpshooter Mason Miller and Creighton turned it over on the other side of the court. Creighton had one offensive rebound the rest of the first half; it was a team rebound that came when Clingan blocked a shot out of bounds.

“We’re an effort rebounding team,” head coach Dan Hurley said afterward. “We get there with quickness and life or death pursuit. The scene under the basket didn’t turn into like a tag-team wrestling match or a UFC cage fight. We were able to get off bodies and just go and get the ball. We had a really brutal film session the last couple games, in particular the last one, where we challenged the manhood of these guys and the warrior spirit. We didn’t like being embarrassed the way we’ve been on the backboard. And the boys responded.”

(Feel free to scroll down to the end of the blog if you just want more silly Dan Hurley quotes.)

It’s hard to know how much impact Challenging The Warrior Spirit had on things, but Clingan’s huge presence inside certainly helped UConn to spread out and shut down Creighton’s strong shooting offense. The Jays are the third-ranked two-point shooting team in the country at 60.2 percent, and still hit 57.6 percent of their shots against stronger competition in conference. They shot just 12-for-26 on two-point attempts last night, though, and when they fell behind big and tried to shoot from distance, they missed 20 of their 26 three-point attempts. Creighton turned it over 14 times, leading to 15 UConn points. Having the 7-foot-2 Clingan inside doesn’t just change an opponent’s inside game; against Creighton, his presence threw the entire equation so out of balance that every aspect of their attack suffered.

“I think we were just locked-in personnel-wise,” said UConn's Alex Karaban, who had 13 points and seven boards. “Everyone was locked in defensively… We really just were a lot tougher than we had been in previous games.”

With their big man back on the offensive end, The Huskies grabbed 21 offensive boards—that's 44.7 percent of their misses. That’s how the Huskies could win by 14 despite on their worst shooting night of the season—they put up a 39.3 effective FG percentage, a stat that weights threes, which is well below their third-in-the-nation 57.1 eFG. “Defensively, we easily played well enough to win,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. But UConn ended up with 19 second-chance points, and won going away.

The Huskies show every indication of settling in for a spell as the top-ranked team in the country, despite playing in a very competitive Big East. They’re top-10 in every rating system. They’re also doing all this without several of the best players on their championship team. Jordan Hawkins (14th overall) and Andre Jackson Jr. (36th) were drafted; Adama Sanogo wasn’t, but is on a two-way contract with the Bulls. The tournament may not shake out as favorably as it did for them last year, but UConn has reloaded and look like real contenders again. They have a tough stretch coming up with games against Villanova, Xavier, Providence, St. John’s, and Butler, but three of those games are at home. And the Huskies proved last night they can win easily even if they have an off shooting night.

“We were just tough, man,” Hurley said. “We were Big East tough. We were warrior, we were man-shit tough tonight.” Hurley added that he was impressed in his team’s first game as No. 1: “Our mentality should be that it's like carrying around a belt, a UFC heavyweight belt or some type of WBC boxing belt.…somebody should have to pry it out of our lifeless body and our dead hands. We should play so hard to keep this thing right now that somebody's got to rip it out of our lifeless body.” Again, the coach can say whatever he wants. But on Wednesday night, his team did everything right—and it was Creighton’s offense that was lifeless.

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