“Play like national champions,” head coach Dan Hurley repeated from the bench in the final 10 minutes, frustrated with the 29 free throws the Wildcats were given in the second half.
UConn shot 13 of 33 (39.4%) from the field after the break and just 1 of 16 from beyond the arc (6.3%) as Hurley and assistant Tom Moore were each called for technical fouls. That performance, a rare off-night during the program’s record stretch of 24 consecutive nonconference wins by double digits, won’t cut it in the upcoming two-week stretch that features games against No. 5 Kansas, No. 17 North Carolina and No. 11 Gonzaga.
“These games coming up are really going to show what this team is about, it’s gonna show everyone who we are,” said Donovan Clingan, who kept the Huskies above water with a career-high 29 points on 12 of 13 shooting. “We got some of the biggest games in college basketball this year coming up within the next couple weeks but we’ve just got to stay locked in, we’ve got to stick to our identity and just keep working every day. Stay in the gym, get shots up, practice as hard as we can because this game on Friday, it’s gonna be a battle.”
Clingan and the Huskies will be challenged Friday as Kansas plays through its own 7-footer, Hunter Dickinson, who’s averaging 21.2 points and 12.7 rebounds while shooting 66.7% from the 3-point line (8 of 12). The Jayhawks, 6-1, beat Kentucky in the Champions Classic earlier this year and bounced back from a loss to Marquette with a nine-point win over Tennessee in the loaded Maui Invitational.
“I think we’re ready for those,” Hurley said. “There’s more anxiety involved in these types of (low-major) games, like, don’t show up, blow your season up. But when you get to go play these Kansas type of games, the Carolina games, the Gonzaga games, these are the fun ones. These are the ones where you gain a lot from winning.
“Where we’re at now, we’re playing against other programs that are vying to be at the top of the sport. We’re playing Kansas on the road, both of us want to be the premiere program in college basketball and now we meet on Friday night. So it’s kind of fun to be in big games like that.”
UConn could get a boost with the potential return of freshman guard Stephon Castle, the preseason Big East Freshman of the Year and former McDonald’s High School All-American, who has missed the last five games since he suffered a knee injury against Stonehill Nov. 11.
“Right now, Steph is crushing the bike. He’s gonna get an NIL deal with Peloton or something,” Hurley quipped.
Castle put up some shots before Monday’s game and is making progress, Hurley said. He had a doctor’s appointment on Tuesday that would determine a better timeline for his return. “It’s a 2-4 week injury and depending on how the recovery goes, week two would be in and around the Kansas game and as you head into week three it’s Carolina at the Garden. It just depends on how the healing goes and how the medical stuff goes.”
In his place, freshman classmate Solo Ball has stepped in and shown glimpses in valuable minutes on the court, but has yet to find consistent success with his shot. He’s shooting just 32% from the field and 20.7% (6 of 29) from beyond the arc.
“He really shoots the ball with us, I think he’s really going to shoot the ball for this team this year. I think he’s pressing a little bit, things are still fast for him,” Hurley said. “But the fact that we’re getting 28 minutes, not a lot of mistakes, eventually I think the offense will come for him – especially the shooting. If you look at it, it’s a clean shot, it looks like it’s gonna go in, just hasn’t found that flow yet.”
“We need growth from these guys, especially as we’re waiting for Steph to get back,” Hurley said, “because Steph changes things for us a lot.”
With or without Castle, Friday’s game will surely serve as a measuring stick game between the last two national champions.
“It was definitely a game circled on my calendar,” Clingan said. “That’s a big-time matchup. Hunter is a great big, one of the best in the country. I’ve got to give him that respect and I’ve got to go out there and do what I do and dominate. I’ve got to rebound the ball, block shots, play my best defense possible and attack on the offensive end. Friday’s gonna be a team game, it’s not a one-on-one performance. In order to beat such a good team like Kansas we’ve got to play as a team and we’ve got to play at our best level.”