STORRS – As he tries to convert Dan Hurley’s vision and his exhortations into reality, Tristen Newton chooses certain videos to make the words more real. The Huskies were about to dive into practice and he was watching the player he was to replace, RJ Cole.
“I was just watching St. John’s games from last year,” Newton said after practice Wednesday at the Werth Center. “The home game ended in extra time. I was watching how he was playing, the urgency, how sharp he was with the ball and I’m learning from that.
Hurley, in his fifth year and now with the last of the players he inherited, has 13 scholarship players of his choice, assembling a team he is certain is talented and deep enough to do big things and leave a mark. positive in March. But to do that, to take advantage of the Huskies’ strengths, he needs to find a replacement for Cole at point guard, or fall into the old don’t-know-what-you-have-until-that- leave. lament.
That’s critical and it’s up to Newton, a transfer from East Carolina, and Hassan Diarra, a transfer from Texas A&M, to clear the big question mark and learn the position such as Hurley wishes, and to learn quickly.
“It’s tough,” said Hurley, who reported a headache after screaming after the first two practices. “That’s why there’s a sense of urgency to get things done as quickly as possible. RJ served one year [after transferring], played very well at times his first year with us, but he was also benched two-thirds of the way through, if you remember, at Providence because we didn’t like where it was. And his response to that was to be a Big East first-team player for the rest of his career. We ask for Tristen and we ask for Hassan, Naheim [Alleyne] and Joey [Calcaterra] to be where RJ and Tyrese Martin were after a year and a half, two years.
UConn needs to capitalize on having juniors Adama Sanogo, with his on-court prowess, Andre Jackson, with his all-around athleticism, and smooth-scoring second Jordan Hawkins while they’re here, Hurley reasons, so he was urgent to surround them with veterans through the portal, especially at guard, and quickly acclimatize those veteran players. That may mean mitigating some, increasing others, and Hurley and associate head coach Kimani Young are committed to teaching the crash course in guard play.
Alleyne, transferring from Virginia Tech, and Calcaterra, from the University of San Diego, are shooters capable of meeting important scoring needs. UConn needs to find that general floor, the facilitator who can also score. Newton averaged 17.8 points and 5.0 assists at East Carolina last season but also turned it over 3.5 times per game.
“We need Tristen’s production,” Hurley said. “We know the score will translate, some of the facilitator and playmaker type things that you need to know, the nuances of the game, we are working on that. Play and play, the engine, the life or death nature of Big East basketball that I’m trying to impress upon all these new guys who haven’t experienced it.
Diarra, the younger brother of UConn director of player development Mamadou Diarra, averaged 1.4 assists in 15.4 minutes off the bench. Former coach Jim Calhoun came to practice on Wednesday and told Hurley about Diarra’s “spirit”.
“Hassan just has a confidence, a joy, a self-belief, a real competitive spirit that’s going to be really great for our team,” Hurley said. “He thinks he’s the best player in the team every time he steps on the pitch.
From Queens and Putnam Science, Diarra, at 6-foot-2, has the personality Hurley associates with “Northeast Basketball.” The task for him to adapt to the UConn design is to play more under control. Newton, 6-5, is a candidate for the Hurley treatment – intensive training. And he signed up for it.
“From the first day he called me, he said he was going to be tough on me,” Newton said. “To get me to where he wants me to be, of course, he’s going to be a bit tough, but I appreciate that. He wants me to play a bit lower, to be more aggressive. He wants [a point guard] who knows what he’s doing, doesn’t turn the ball over and plays the right game. I have to get a bit more precise with the ball and I’ll be fine.
Hurley wants Newton to “get lower” with his dribbling, for better ball control. “The gaps and the windows in this league that you can go through are a lot smaller, a lot thinner than other conferences,” Hurley said, “because the games are so physical. Improving his leverage, lower with the dribbling. He’s got good court IQ, he’s a real natural basketball player. He just has to adapt to a new style of doing things. We do things in a unique way here, we practice in a way unique. It adapts.
Cole, who now plays professionally in Greece, went from a No. 1 scoring point guard at Howard to a Hurley point guard at UConn, averaging 15.4 points and 4.1 assists with an assist-to-turnover ratio higher than 2-to-1 last season. It’s a high bar for those who would replace RJ Cole in clearing: leading, scoring and being smart with the ball.
“Tristen is playing great, Hassan is playing great,” Hawkins said. “Hassan is a very energetic guy, Tristen is a bit cooler, but he gets the job done for sure. Both of these guys do it in different ways.
Dom Amore can be reached at [email protected]