Stephon Castle’s emergence proves UConn is still improving, a scary thought for others

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NEW YORK — Maybe it was the confidently splashed 3-pointer that opened the scoring for Connecticut on an electric afternoon at Madison Square Garden. Maybe it was the tough transition layup a minute later that gave the Huskies an early lead. Maybe it was the two-handed slam on a twirling feed from point guard Tristen Newton that quieted the crowd in the waning moments of the first half. Or maybe it was the second 3-pointer that swished as coolly as the first.

Then again, it could have been the two-point jumper to begin the second half. It could have been the burst of seven points in fewer than four minutes as UConn built an insurmountable double-digit lead. It could have been the defensive versatility that ranged from checking St. John’s fast-paced guards to playing a pinch of undersized center when traditional big men Donovan Clingan and Samson Johnson were saddled with foul trouble. 

Any or all of those things might have prompted head coach Dan Hurley to gush about the player who accomplished them — freshman guard Stephon Castle — following his team’s 20th win of the season and 10th in a row, this time disposing of St. John’s, 77-64, before a sold-out crowd that came to see a Big East rivalry renewed and left with a clear understanding of why the Huskies are ranked No. 1 in the country. Castle established a new career-high with 21 points on 7-for-12 shooting and made all five of his free throws to help Connecticut pull away from the Red Storm. It was his second 20-point game in the span of three days and a frightening reminder to the college basketball world that UConn, the reigning national champion, is still getting better.

“What freshman in the country is playing better than him?” Hurley said. “What freshman in the country is playing better defensively, on the backboard, making 3s, getting to the paint, that length defensively, taking away top players in our league and shutting them down? What freshman currently is playing better than him all over the court and has his team winning the way he is?”

By pouring in 41 points on 14-for-26 shooting over his last two games, Castle is beginning to make the kind of two-way impact Connecticut fans expected when he enrolled last June. Castle was the crown jewel of a five-man recruiting class that included three players rated among the top-60 prospects and finished fourth in the 247Sports Composite national rankings, far and away the best haul since Hurley took over the program six years ago. In Castle, who finished as a five-star recruit and the No. 9-ranked player in the country, the Huskies secured their second-best prospect of the recruiting rankings era, behind only Rudy Gay in 2004. He became just the fourth five-star prospect to sign with Connecticut over the last 25 years, gaining access to an exclusive group that previously counted Gay, Charlie Villanueva and Kemba Walker as its only members. 

Somewhat predictably, Castle was named the Big East’s Preseason Freshman of the Year at the conference’s media day event in late October. Then, the 6-foot-6, 215-pound guard waltzed into Hurley’s starting lineup as the only rookie alongside two sophomores and two fifth-year seniors. Experts projected Castle, who starred at Newton High School in Covington, Georgia, to be worthy of a top-10 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft, which, if he eventually decides to declare, would make him the second one-and-done player in UConn history after Andre Drummond became the first in 2012.

But after scoring 12 points in the season opener against Northern Arizona and 17 points later that same week against Stonehill, Castle suffered a knee injury that derailed the first half of his freshman season. He underwent a minor procedure that sidelined him for the better part of a month — which meant he was unavailable when the Huskies lost to Kansas, 69-65, at Allen Fieldhouse in early December — before eventually returning to play 10 minutes during a neutral-site win over then-No. 9 North Carolina in the same building he electrified on Saturday afternoon against St. John’s. 

“Last time I was here [it] was my first game back off the injury,” Castle said, “so I didn’t really get the full experience.”

The same couldn’t be said for his second foray into Madison Square Garden, where a team and a fan base enlivened by legendary coach Rick Pitino were conspiring to hand the Huskies a loss for the first time in six weeks. A wonderful rendition of the national anthem was speckled with cries of “Go Johnnies!” and “F— UConn!” as the World’s Most Famous Arena rumbled to life. When Castle heard his name called during the introduction of Connecticut’s starting lineup, the chant that echoed around the building was “F— the Huskies! F— the Huskies!”

UConn’s Tristen Newton spins and finds Stephon Castle for the two-handed flush in transition against St. John’s

UConn's Tristen Newton spins and finds Stephon Castle for the two-handed flush in transition against St. John's

Castle helped quell those early roars by wiping away his turnover on the game’s first possession with an in-rhythm 3-pointer the next time down the floor, silencing a crowd that frothed and foamed. It was the kind of shot that carried increased significance for Castle, 19, following the lengthy shooting slump he endured after his early-season surgery.

Beginning with his return against North Carolina, Castle missed 17 of his next 21 attempts from beyond the arc. Sensing an exploitable vulnerability, opponents began daring Castle to shoot by sagging defenders deeper and deeper into the paint, not unlike what certain teams did with former UConn guard Andre Jackson last season. Castle missed every 3-pointer he took against Xavier, DePaul and St. John’s, while combining to shoot 2-for-9 from beyond the arc in wins over Villanova and Creighton. He went 14 consecutive games without making multiple 3s.

“I feel like my teammates pretty much picked me up confidence-wise and told me I’m here for a reason and to show that,” Castle said. “So I’ve been trying to do that the last couple of games.”

He exploded with a new career-high of 20 points against Providence on Wednesday night by shooting 7-for-14 from the field and 2-for-4 from 3-point range to lead the Huskies in scoring. Then he surpassed that mark against St. John’s with even greater efficiency. He shot 7-for-12 from the field, 2-for-2 from beyond the arc and 5-for-5 on free throws, despite entering the weekend with a substandard clip of 68.9% from the line. Castle had missed at least one free throw in six consecutive games and nine of his last 10 prior to Saturday’s impressively calm display in a high-volume, high-pressure environment. 

‘We’re the No. 1 team’ – Stephon Castle on UConn’s win over St. John’s and the Huskies’ tenacity

'We're the No. 1 team' – Stephon Castle on UConn's win over St. John's and the Huskies' tenacity

For the second time in a week, Connecticut fans were giddily witnessing everything Castle has to offer: from his incredible defensive intensity to his powerful finishing around the rim, from his ability to guard multiple positions to his timely perimeter shooting, from his downhill attacks off the dribble to his willingness to crash the boards on both ends of the floor. The fact that Castle did all that while forward Alex Karaban (ankle) was out with an injury further underscored his importance to Hurley’s team. Together, it explains why Castle is viewed as the 12th most valuable player in college basketball by the analytics website

“He figured out how they’re guarding him, you know?” said Newton, who chipped in 21 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists in the win over St. John’s. “He’s attacking them and he’s doing what he does best: get to the rim and finishing. He looked in the mirror and he learned his game, so he figured it out. I feel like he’s only going to get better from here on out.”

So, which freshman is playing better basketball than Stephon Castle?

The answer to Hurley’s question might be no one. 

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

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