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Tristen Newton, Cam Spencer help UConn get back on track in win over Villanova

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Tristen Newton, Cam Spencer help UConn get back on track in win over Villanova

John Fanta

College Basketball Broadcaster and Reporter

The one word that comes to mind when I think of UConn’s men’s basketball team this season: avalanche.

If you take one play, one sequence in a game off, this team will make you pay 99 percent of the time.

Villanova fought valiantly for the better part of 25 minutes on Saturday night, and with 11:30 remaining in the game, the Wildcats only trailed the top-ranked Huskies by five points. But then, as he’s done all year, Cam Spencer counterpunched, drilling a 3 and then capitalizing on a 3-point play as the Huskies went on a 12-0 run. UConn never looked back in a 78-54 win to improve to 25-3 on the season and 15-2 in Big East play.

Spencer finished with a game-high 25 points, while Tristen Newton delivered his second triple-double of the season, and fourth of his career, finishing with 10 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists.

Here are three takeaways from UConn’s impressive win over Villanova on Saturday night.

1. Cam Spencer deserves to be in the Big East Player of the Year race.

He’s been the most invaluable transfer in the conference, matching Dan Hurley’s ultra-competitive identity while being one of the top shooters in the country at 44% from beyond the arc on the year.

With 14 double-figure performances in the last 16 games, Spencer has been an intense and clutch perimeter presence for this team, and he can do more than just shoot it from 3. When the Huskies need somebody to make a shot, they have multiple weapons at their disposal, but Spencer’s DNA is built for it.

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Consider this: Spencer was a 0-star recruit coming out of high school, going to Loyola Maryland. To think he’s gone from there, to a solid program in Rutgers, to the very best team in the country is an incredible rise. He’s had an outstanding season and has been the perfect match for the reigning champs.

UConn’s Cam Spencer knocks down a 3-pointer to extend the lead over Villanova.

2. Tristen Newton might be the front-runner for Big East Player of the Year, as he added to his historic two-year run.

Think about the legends that have played at UConn: Richard Hamilton, Donyell Marshall, Emeka Okafor, Kemba Walker, Ray Allen, to name a few.

There have been 15 triple-doubles in UConn men’s basketball history, and Newton owns four of them. Nobody else for the Huskies owns more than two.

Before we get to Newton’s importance, here’s the best thing you’ll see tonight: Gus Johnson’s reaction to Newton’s triple-double.

Newton’s balance is what impresses me the most, along with a “Cool Hand Luke” personality that makes him unflappable. To be averaging 15.4 points, 6.9 rebounds and 5.7 assists just shows what he means to this team. That’s why choosing a Big East Player of the Year is so hard. As one Connecticut assistant told me earlier this week, “we may be a victim in the player of the year award for our own success.”

We’ll see how it shakes out. This bears noting: Teams don’t nominate a singular name for player of the year. The Big East coaches could each vote for a different player from the same team, like we saw in 2021 with Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Collin Gillespie and Sandro Mamukelashvili. I think we could be in for something similar this year. We had more on this in our college basketball roundtable this week.

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3. Villanova must go 3-1 down the stretch in order to have a shot at an NCAA Tournament bid.

The Wildcats host Georgetown at 6:30 p.m. ET Tuesday on FS1. They absolutely have to win that game, as a loss would effectively end any remaining tournament hopes. Then, it’s a three-game season: at Providence, at Seton Hall and home to Creighton.

The pressure is on Kyle Neptune and this roster, worth in the neighborhood of $3 million in name, image and likeness dollars, to find a way to reach the Big Dance. Villanova made nine straight NCAA Tournament trips from 2013-22, establishing itself as a powerhouse in the sport with national titles under Jay Wright in 2016 and 2018. The thought of this program missing two straight tournaments after making nine in a row — and the idea that this team was a huge offseason winner and ranked in the preseason Top 25 — is wild.

What has led to Villanova’s inconsistent 15-12 record? An over-reliance on 3-point shooting and an overall predictable approach offensively.

On Saturday, Villanova shot 3-for-24 from beyond the arc. That’s not going to cut it. Outside of Eric Dixon, who had 20 points and eight rebounds, not much has been consistent for this team. The Wildcats must win Tuesday night and make a push to get to 19 wins, including the Big East Tournament (March 13-16 on FOX and FS1).

John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on X at @John_Fanta.

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