HARTFORD – And now it gets interesting.
After predictably winning its first three games against mid-majors, the season gets real for UConn Sunday afternoon against Indiana in the Empire Classic at Madison Square Garden.
But first, the Huskies, 45-point favorites against Mississippi Valley State on Tuesday, prevailed 87-53 at the XL Center in an uneven performance that got under the skin of Dan Hurley.
Reigning Big East Freshman of the Week Stephon Castle sat out due to a knee injury, which will be re-evaluated later this week. Without him, UConn, at times, looked lethargic. Inexplicably it allowed 14 offensive rebounds against inferior competition.
Hurley was hardly thrilled.
“I’m not particularly pleased with tonight’s performance,” Hurley said. “I thought we looked soft. We had just terrible discipline. We couldn’t guard the ball. Overall, it was a frustrating night of basketball.”
One major bright spot, though, was the play of senior transfer Cam Spencer. After struggling in his first two games in a UConn uniform (5-of-14 overall shooting, 4-of-13 from three), Spencer unleashed his fury on the Delta Devils, scoring 25 points, including an electric first half when he made five of seven threes en route to 19 points. His seven total three-pointers were two shy of Ray Allen’s single-game program record of nine.
“It felt good. I couldn’t throw it in the ocean the other night,” Spencer said. “To see a few go in tonight was great. I credit my teammates for finding me in the open spots and I just had to knock them down.”
Spencer, a career 40 percent three-point shooter at Loyola and Rutgers, is going to play a major role in UConn’s quest to win back-to-back titles.
“Shooting, that’s something he’s been able to do his whole career, so we knew (the slow shooting start) was going to change,” Hurley said. “He is embodying more of the things right now that more players should embody. He plays with toughness, he plays with a little bit of a dog mentality. I don’t think he had many guys that were ready to go with him tonight.
“It’s scary to think what that halftime score would’ve been without him (UConn was up, 44-27).”
Hurley also raved about Spencer’s continuous drive for success.
“He has parents that never blame the coach, never blame the teacher,” Hurley said. “They always demand that he gets better, not make excuses. He’s got this mentality where he’s never doing enough and pushes himself. His whole life is basketball. He’s not on Twitter, he’s not on Instagram, he’s just a baller.
“Tomorrow’s an off day and he’ll try to break into our offices tomorrow and start watching Indiana and watching his matchup and ask questions of why we need to take a day off.”
In addition to Spencer, Donovan Clingan finished with 17 points, five rebounds and three blocks for the Huskies, while Alex Karaban, battling foul trouble throughout, fought his way to 14 points and five rebounds. Tristen Newton had 10 points and seven rebounds and Solomon Ball, starting in place of Castle, struggled with his shot (3-of-12), but was able to reach double figures with 10 points.
Now, the fifth-ranked Huskies return to MSG, the site of their last loss back in March to Marquette in the Big East Tournament semifinals. As noted, they should find out Castle’s fate later this week. Hurley didn’t seem concerned it would be a long-term injury, while saying he could miss some time.
“We’re excited to go play a national game,” Hurley said. “We’re going to need to play a lot better, though.”
It’s only November, but early season tournaments at The Garden always have a postseason feel. UConn’s returnees have thrived in this type of environment. How the newcomers adapt, however, may give a good preview of what’s ahead for the Huskies.