Sunday, February 25, 2024
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Court Report: UConn’s Tristen Newton has been the not-so-quiet MVP of the Huskies’ season so far

NEW YORK — All offseason, the player who was labeled as the breakout guy for 2023-24: UConn sophomore center Donovan Clingan. It landed him preseason All-America accolades. Maybe that winds up being the case, but for now, Clingan is dealing with a toe injury and hasn’t fully looked like himself yet after a preseason foot ailment.

Great teams overcome. UConn again looks great. Clingan’s status hasn’t slowed the No. 5 Huskies, who beat ninth-ranked North Carolina 87-76 in the marquee matchup Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden in the Jimmy V Classic. 

Nine games into Connecticut’s season, it’s clear who the big name and most important player on this roster is: graduate point guard Tristen Newton. As I wrote recently, after a different drubbing at MSG, there’s a lot to be inspired by with UConn and its national championship potential. The 6-foot-5 Newton is The Guy. If this team plays its way to a Big East title or another Final Four, Newton will be the core of the effort. 

“He is what makes them go and he sets up all those other guys, so that’s been huge,” one assistant who faced UConn told me. 

His growth over the past two seasons can’t be merely casually acknowledged. After transferring from East Carolina, where he put up good numbers on a bad team in the bottom of the American Athletic Conference, Newton was initially a stopgap to replace RJ Cole, who left after the 2021-22 season. 

Last season, he was a support beam on a star-laden UConn team that won the national title. With three triple-doubles in 49 career UConn games, he’s already the program record holder in that category. 

“Just would have expected more buzz going into the year,” UConn coach Dan Hurley told me, citing Newton’s performance in Final Four and title game. “He’s in a position now where he’s got the green light, we’re running the things for him … and we’re featuring him like he’s one of the best guards in the country.” 

That’s precisely how he’s playing.

This season, Newton is the only player averaging at least 17 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists. He’s sixth in KenPom.com’s player of the year algorithm and the highest-ranked guard. 

Credit UConn associate head coach Kimani Young, who was the guy who identified Newton in the transfer portal in 2022 and saw something. The staff told Newton then what they believed: He was the missing piece to building a Final Four team. 

“That was really the pitch for him, and I like to joke and say he had bigger plans and turned out to be the missing piece when we won the national championship,” Young told me Tuesday. 

Sometimes these things find footing quickly. Other times, they need some nurturing, which was the case with Newton. 

The path there wasn’t straight.

Newton is wired differently than Hurley and the rest of UConn’s staff — and even most of UConn’s roster. A guy from El Paso, Texas, without a huge ego, who can keep to himself and is motivated by quiet determination. Young said no player has been coached harder by the staff since they started five-plus years ago.

“When you recruit a kid out of the transfer portal, you’re getting their good and their bad,” Young said. “A portal player, one-, two-, three-year player, you’re seeing all this talent on film, but underneath that are multiple years of habits that come from something other than what we do. I think that was the transition period we had to go through with Tristen, just the way we go about practicing, the way we go about competing, how important this is, how much energy and enthusiasm and competitiveness, all these things our program is about don’t necessarily come natural to Tristen.”

He adapted without having to change who he was at his core. Without Newton on the roster, the Huskies probably get kicked out of the bracket before reaching the 2023 title game. Young and Hurley told me Newton has great poise and his body language belies his motivations and emotions. 

“You’re watching him play and you might think he’s not doing anything and at the end of the night he’s got a triple-double and you’re like what the hell just happened?” Young said.

After the national title game, Hurley sat down with Newton and had a blunt, candid conversation about what they were going to ask of him. He’s passed every test since, even in UConn’s lone loss, against Kansas “he went into survival mode,” Young said. “I just think his scoring instincts and his experience kicked in.” 

Newton was the one who kept UConn in that game. Newton went for 14/5/5 against UNC. It was a casual night for him. Bigger ones await. He’s one of the best rebounding guards in the nation, one of the best distributors, shot-takers and competitors. 

Everyone in that locker knows he is the centerpiece for a run to a repeat. He’s All-American-level right now.

Illinois is model of consistency under Underwood

The lid-lifter Tuesday night at the Garden was a top-20 affair (not an every-year thing) with No. 20 Illinois scooting away from No. 11 FAU 98-89. It was the rare game to feature two players on the same team going for career-highs and dropping 30-plus in doing so. Terrence Shannon Jr. and SIU transfer Marcus Domask (where did THAT come from?) each put up a personal-best 33 points. 

Illinois is 7-1, its lone loss against top-10 Marquette. Tuesday’s conquest was the latest in a consistent line of victories over a ranked team for seventh-year Illini coach Brad Underwood. Tuesday was the 30th time his team played in a ranked-on-ranked matchup since 2019; he’s a reputable 16-14 in those games. 

So, yeah: Illinois is a quality team again, will be near the top of the Big Ten and should comfortably slot into the NCAA Tournament as a single-digit seed for the fourth straight year. 

Can we take a moment to recognize this success story? 

In 2017, Illinois swung big on Underwood but had no assurances this would work. 

“I don’t ever lose sight of what … we’re here in the Jimmy V. We begged to get into this stage when we first got here,” Underwood told me Tuesday night. “I’ve always said this is where this program should be. But I don’t ever want to lose sight of where it was.” 

He was a great 89-14 with three straight tournament runs at Stephen F. Austin, then got Oklahoma State to the Big Dance in his lone season there. OSU brass took too long to bring a new contract offer to Underwood, so he couldn’t pass on the promises laid before him at Illinois as it hurriedly courted him. 

What’s transpired? This is a top-20 program on stable ground. Underwood has pulled this off in a high-pressure place with a variety of styles and redesigns. This season, Illinois ranks No. 2 in eFG% defense and Underwood has his best rebounding team yet. The Illini have won more Big Ten games (56) than any other team in the past four-plus seasons; that doubles as a program record for most wins in that span. Amid this, Illinois has earned a conference title and No. 1 NCAA seed in 2021, a regular-season title in 2022, had an NCAA Tournament-level team four years running — and 2023-24 will almost certainly be the fifth. 

If Illinois had chased someone else in 2017, would it be this relevant year over year? Probably not. 

Underwood said he’s gotten amazing administrative support, and that tells a huge part of the story. A $40 million practice facility, a $170 million renovation to the State Farm Center right when he was taking over. It’s helped him build out Illinois the way he wanted. 

“I’ve got the best strength coach in the business. Great staff. I’m just a piece of it,” Underwood said. “My biggest fear when I got there was we’re in the Big Ten. Everybody’s got stuff and everybody’s got players. How in the world are we going to pass these people? And I mean, nobody lets you — you’ve got to pass them.”

The past few seasons, Illinois has Mario Kart’d much of the, as Illinois is operating as a top-three shop in the Big Ten. Expectations are at a healthy-but-not-unreasonable level. The team has been ranked since the preseason, the fourth straight year the program was ranked heading into November. That had never happened before. 

Toss in the All-Americans and all-league players in recent history and this is a portrait of a proud program on the precipice of another breakthrough. Underwood still needs to find March success. Illinois is yet to make a Sweet 16 under him. This roster feels like the drought could finally end. A drought that dates all the way back to 2005. Yep: The year Illinois made the national championship game. 

“I think I’m a builder and a teacher at heart,” Underwood said. 

Everyday guys. Players who want to work. We should celebrate it long before the crunch of March changes the discussion. The Illini matter, and when they do, college basketball feels a little stronger. 

NCAA Basketball: Jimmy V Classic-Florida Atlantic at Illinois

Brad Underwood has Illinois looking like one of the 15 best teams in the country. USATSI

UNC definitely upgraded, but still not upper-tier

I started with Jimmy V’s two winning teams, now let’s look at the other end. The Tar Heels bumped into the top 10 of this week’s AP Top 25, but I’m not on board with that yet. Top 25? Yes, UNC is that good and has that ceiling, obviously. 

It’s not in Connecticut’s class right now, though, and its inability to keep pace with UConn on Tuesday was something worth noting for the long haul. Hubert Davis’ team is unquestionably better than last year and is going to pick off notable victories over the next three months, but can it keep up with the top of the sport? Jury is still out on that. 

“Obviously disappointed that we didn’t win, but also encouraged not just about how much more we can grow, but what we’ve done in nine games,” Tar Heels coach Hubert Davis told me. “It’s a great opportunity for us, the next 10 days to obviously take exams, but to work on us and we’re just continuing to improve step by step, every day, just trying to get better.”

If you want some reason to believe UNC will be more reliable this season, beyond the wins it’s already accrued vs. Arkansas and Tennessee, look at how Davis and his staff have changed up their priorities with a lot of roster turnover. The Tar Heels traditionally thrive on pace. Last season, they did not. This year, they are back and ranking in the top 30 in offensive pace. (Last season: 111th.) Every game has been 70 possessions or more. You’re seeing them look more opportunistic on misses, running the secondary break and having freshman Elliot Cadeau step into a big role right away. Look for Cadeau to be playing like a sophomore by February. I think he’s vital. 

It’s also clear to see how willingly UNC is sharing the ball this season. Harrison Ingram and Cormac Ryan have quickly adapted and made UNC a less predictable scout because of their activeness on offense. North Carolina is tallying more assists on average and that won’t be reverting, I wouldn’t think. 

The third part of this is having more shooting. Last season, Davis had to live with Pete Nance and Leaky Black being inconsistent scorers. Those guys brought a lot of positive attributes, but they couldn’t fill it up the way Ingram and Ryan have so far. I’d argue those players haven’t even hit their groove yet, but UNC is still 7-2. Good signs.

Its next game is against another blue blood: Kentucky awaits on Dec. 16 in Atlanta at the CBS Sports Classic.

FAU scheduling tough, should be expected to dance again

The Owls ran out of steam against Illinois at MSG, but a reminder that this was just the sixth loss in FAU’s last 48 games. I guarantee you every coach in the country would take 42-6 if you offered it to them. 

I commend Dusty May for leaning into such a challenging schedule. Illinois was one of almost 10 challenging games May put on the ledger in the non-con. It would have been easy for him to go lighter, but that’s not what May did. After making the Final Four, FAU found itself to be quite popular among power brokers who were putting on neutral-site events.

A couple weeks after the end of the season, May took a call. ESPN wanted his team to play in the Jimmy V Classic. He immediately said yes. He did the same for the ESPN Events Invitational in Orlando (FAU went 3-0 there). The Owls opened the season in Chicago against Loyola Chicago, agreed to host two dangerous mid-majors in Liberty and Charleston (won both), plus have neutral-site events awaiting against St. Bonaventure (a top-100 KenPom team) and title-contender Arizona. Even more: the last game on its non-league slate will be the thankless task of playing Florida Gulf Coast on the road.

Scheduling has been a 180 from what life was like for May early on. Did you know: He’s now 1-1 vs. Illinois. The second big win of his head coaching career came five years ago, in his first season at FAU. The Owls went up to Illinois and beat the Illini 73-71 in overtime. FAU was paid $85,000 for that game. It was really easy to get it on the schedule. 

No more buy-games for FAU these days, though May still has to raise $100,000 every year in scheduling agreements. He pulled it off with the non-con neutral-site events. (Also: not a single high-major was paying FAU to come in and play this season.)

“To be here with Florida Atlantic is something that you probably never could have imagined,” May told me of getting invited to the Jimmy V. “We also understand that we’re not here just to be here. This is a great opportunity for us once again, a chance to put our players in the biggest spotlight and college basketball. So we’re honored that we’re excited and realize that we’re not just trying to be here. I’m trying to make a statement.”

This team will get back to the NCAA Tournament if it stays healthy and remains true to its core. May has great internal leadership, guys who hold themselves accountable without egos messing up the locker room. Tuesday’s game was closer than the 98-89 score indicates. 

“They’re the best passing team in college basketball,” Underwood said, later adding, “They can score 100 pretty easy.”

“Part of our mission is to be enjoyable to watch,” May told me. 

They are THAT. They just need to avoid the bad losses, like the vexing home defeat vs. Bryant. That one is going to weigh the résumé down, but if FAU can get out of non-league play with just three losses — definitely doable — then it’ll be in control of getting to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments for the first time in program history. If and when that happens, it will be because of the games arranged in November and December.

@ me

The Court Report’s weekly mailbag. Hit me on X/Twitter and drop a question anytime. I’ll answer a few every week here.

I resist the no-great-teams talking point, though it gets parroted quite a bit almost every year … when it’s only true maybe 20% of the time? A season ago, the “no great teams!” line got tiresome, and then UConn went out and had arguably the most dominant NCAA Tournament sprint we’ve ever seen. UConn was a great team last season — it might be a great team this season. Way too early to think we can’t have two or three that get to that level.

My Big East read right now: Four teams dancing is the floor, but working a way to six is a steep climb. UConn, Creighton and Marquette are all on their way to high seeds. Villanova is an enigma. Providence is possible, though Tuesday night’s loss at Oklahoma was a body blow. St. John’s has much to prove, Xavier is probably going to be Team Chaos. DePaul and Georgetown won’t be in the mix. Can Seton Hall rise up? Maybe Butler pokes through. I’ll stick with five get in, one goes to Dayton.

After watching Duke up close and talking with Jon Scheyer last week, I think the Blue Devils have some jelling to do. Scheyer’s road record (4-8) is notable, and that pattern can’t continue if this is going to be a team on the list of Final Four contenders. WIth all that talent, it seems like some players are still adapting to different roles. Kyle Filipowski can’t be asked to carry this team for 25-plus games. I think they miss Dereck Lively II. The loss at Arkansas was understandable. The loss to Georgia Tech was reason for pause. This isn’t one of the 25 best teams in the sport today, even if the AP rankings claim otherwise.

Saint Mary’s (4-5) and Michigan State (4-4) are dueling for biggest letdown at this stage. It shouldn’t have to be this way, Gaels. I haven’t talked to Randy Bennett about it, but I can almost guarantee you he hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in weeks. There’s no room left for error in terms of having an at-large résumé.

Princeton has the best chance per KenPom, but I am now siding with Gary Parrish, who tabbed Houston in the preseason and probably only has Texas A&M (Dec. 16) standing in its way in getting there. Just another year of Kelvin Sampson’s team kicking everyone’s behind and operating like a powerhouse. Does everybody now fully understand the Cougars don’t mess around? 

At one point in October when I was shuffling around teams before finalizing the list for my preseason top 101, I think I had Colorado State as high as 65. Then I bumped it down to 73. Either way, toooo low. That’s a top-50 team, clearly, and Isaiah Stevens is a First Team All-American right now. If CSU is a top-two team in the Mountain West, he’ll have a great shot at being recognized as an A-A in March.

A two-parter! On Tuesday night the Tigers won again, getting to 9-0 for the first time in 104 years. That’s flat-out nuts. I think Princeton is going to have the better seed come Selection Sunday. Mark me down for the Tigers getting a 10 with three losses. As to the band Q, if we’re going with one I planned to see and missed out: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. One to see that I’ve still never caught but need to: Radiohead, Radiohead, Radiohead. 

Norlander’s news + nuggets

• There was a lot of ink spilled Tuesday over NCAA president Charlie Baker’s new legislation about implementing trusts to future Division I athletes at some of the richest high-major schools. The proposed legislation was in the works for months, but it stops short of allowing room for college athletes to be employees. Ultimately, this might prove to be a half measure. In speaking to people around college athletics, the optimism around this initiative is mixed.  
• Thankfully, the four-team CFP is in its last year. If you’re curious how next year will compare to basketball, there are 133 FBS schools and 12 will make the field for the College Football Playoff — that’s 9.02%. If you brought the same ratio to college basketball, 9.02% of 362 programs equals a 33-team NCAA tourney field.
• We have another coaching change: Cliff Ellis, who at 78 years old and with 883 wins led college basketball in both those categories, is resigning and making room for Benny Moss. My favorite Ellis fact is he was once a bassist in a music group and could’ve easily taken a much different career path. 
• 7-0 South Carolina plays at 7-0 Clemson on Wednesday night in a Palmetto State showdown like never before. It’s rare for either of those teams to win their first seven games on the ledge; this game marks the first time they’ve ever met this deep into a season as undefeated teams.
Maryland has little room to lose at this point, yet combo guard Jahmir Young‘s availability for Wednesday’s game vs. Penn State is in flux. It’s a roadie for the Nitts and a loss would be disastrous. 
• More injury news: Justin Moore left Villanova’s OT loss (what a crusher for VU that was; what a morale-boosting win for K-State) with a knee sprain. The Wildcats are wobbly and can’t navigate top-50 competition without Moore. 
• I talked Tuesday night with NCAA vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt as he took in the doubleheader at MSG. In the offseason, the NCAA announced the selection committee had formal discussions around the pros and cons of considering eventual expansion. Gavitt said those examinations are still ongoing and nothing is imminent. 
• Also at MSG Tuesday night: Jay Wright. He was doing prep work for Illinois. This is obviously no shock, but Wright is as prepared and diligent in his new job as he was at his old one. He will be on the mic this Saturday for CBS’ Illinois-Tennessee game in Knoxville, Tennessee. Should be a real tussle. 

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