29 Apr

UConn’s title-tilting edge is seen on NBA mock drafts, from Castle to Clingan to Karaban

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Alabama dug out of a halftime hole to tie things up midway through the second half Saturday and put No. 1 seed UConn on alert. What happened next was a perfect encapsulation of the inevitability of the reigning champion Huskies.

Over the next 97 seconds of game action, UConn reeled off an 8-0 run and came crashing down on the Tide like an overwhelming tidal wave of talent. Stephon Castle scored four-straight. Samson Johnson jammed one home off a Cam Spencer dime. Then Alex Karaban got into the action with a bunny at the bucket.

Alabama never got within striking distance from there in UConn’s 86-72 Final Four victory, as that 56-all mark drowned in Huskies’ overwhelming talent.

“The unique thing about our team is that we can go on a run at any time,” Huskies freshman Jaylin Stewart said. “The level of talent we have here — every guy can go, so you can never slack playing us.”

In a year when the NBA Draft is loaded with players who aren’t in college or not making deep runs, this UConn team is different. In my latest mock draft, only two of the top 13 picks were playing in the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament: Clingan (No. 5) and Castle (No. 8). Castle, a former five-star recruit and projected top-10 pick, scored a team-high 21 points. Donovan Clingan, another projected top-10 pick, scored 18 and had four blocks. Meanwhile, Karaban and Tristen Newton, two other potential first-rounders on the loaded roster, scored 14 and 12 respectively — with Newton adding nine assists.

It’s Castle in particular whose star turn on the national stage caught eyes. With his NBA potential, he could have gone anywhere in the country and played a leading role. Instead, he went to UConn, where he is the fifth-leading scorer — and the best ace in the hole any contender has had since Devin Booker.

“He’s not like any other freshman,” Clingan said. “He’s out there to do whatever his team needs to do to win. … He’s the most unselfish player on this team.”

Newton, a first-team All-American and fifth-year senior, tends to agree.

“He could come out here and shoot the ball any time if he really wanted to,” he said. “But he’s played his role great all year. He takes advantage of his opportunities. The most unselfish part of him is that he guards the best perimeter player every game. He’s the most unselfish player on the team.”

The Huskies’ spurtability is their strength. They are both deep and dynamic. At any point they can ramp it up and run away — like they did in the Elite Eight with a 30-0 run and like they did in the Final Four. An already-dangerous team can become lethal at any point. That’s what makes this team so special.

“I think we’ve got a lot of confidence,” UConn coach Dan Hurley said. “There’s a factor with teams now that they’ve seen us play, where we get on a run. I think it’s disheartening for the other team because they’ve seen it — and they’ve seen us do it a lot.”

It’s an embarrassment of riches for UConn, which very well might win its second consecutive national championship Monday here in Glendale — something not accomplished since Florida in 2007.

And it serves in stark contrast to its last test of the year on deck, Purdue, which has two-time Player of the Year Zach Edey and a cast of characters who fit as college players but don’t project anywhere close to the same future NBA talent as UConn.

The Boilermakers have Edey, a potential first-rounder whose 7-foot-4, 300-pound frame is the foundation of his prospect profile, and everyone else. No former five-star recruits. No projected top-10 picks.

But together, a collective team that looks poised to give UConn its toughest — and final — test of the year.

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