Thanks to ‘NBA’ depth, UConn eyeing NCAA No. 1 overall seed

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NEW YORK — Saturday’s results broke exactly how they needed to for the defending national champions.

No. 3 Purdue lost to Wisconsin in overtime in the Big Ten tournament semifinals. No. 7 Iowa State pasted No. 1 Houston for the Big 12 championship. And No. 2 UConn took care of business in a hot-shooting second half to beat 10th-ranked Marquette 73-57, sweeping the Big East regular-season and postseason titles.

At 31-3, UConn now could be in prime position to receive the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament on Selection Sunday. Coach Dan Hurley claimed that no team at the top of college basketball combined a successful nonconference stretch, a regular-season conference title and a tournament run the way the Huskies have.

“We’ve been the best team in college basketball,” Hurley said. “Obviously March Madness next week, who knows what goes on there, but we’ve clearly been the best program in the country this year.”

How did they do it? Contributions from up and down the roster — some returnees from last year’s championship team, some newcomers, all pulling on the same rope.

All five starters — Tristen Newton, Cam Spencer, Alex Karaban, Stephon Castle and Donovan Clingan — have taken turns leading the attack, and all five had double-figure scoring averages on the season. It was Clingan’s time on Saturday, pairing 22 points with 16 rebounds as he carried the team through a first half of cold perimeter shooting.

The 7-foot-2 Clingan filled the starting center role after Adama Sanogo went to the NBA. Now Clingan is a projected lottery pick this June along with Castle, while Karaban is projected to go in the second round by reputable mock drafts.

That’s to say nothing of Newton and Spencer, who both made the All-Big East first team.

“We’re deep, and we’re deep with NBA players that are unselfish and about winning,” Hurley said.

The Huskies rely on more than their starting five, though, and they needed to dig deep Saturday. Backup big man Samson Johnson provided a much-needed dunk after they went scoreless for the first 6:33 of the game. And with UConn hampered by a 2-for-15 start from 3-point range, freshman Jaylin Stewart delivered.

Stewart subbed in just before the midpoint of the second half and promptly buried a 3-pointer that gave UConn its first lead larger than four all night. Newton drilled a trey less than a minute later, and the floodgates burst.

Spurred on by the pro-UConn crowd at Madison Square Garden, Stewart made two more triples to finish the night with nine points, his second-best total this season. He hadn’t made a 3-pointer since Valentine’s Day.

“Our league is especially tough on freshmen because the league is so physical,” Hurley said. “But we see on a daily basis what he displayed out there on the court. … He’s a future star. You’re looking at a future star at UConn.”

Newton had 10 assists one night after going for 25 points and nine assists in the semifinals against St. John’s. UConn racked up 73 assists over its three-game stay in New York.

“Everybody runs and everybody can score,” Newton said. “Just share the ball, and it’ll be like that for a long time.”

If that adds up to a No. 1 overall seed for UConn, it would set the Huskies up with the simplest path back to the Final Four, as they try to become the first team to win back-to-back national championships since Florida in 2006-07.

“I know we’ve never gotten a No. 1 overall seed in program history,” Hurley said, “so this is a group that seems to be making history in a place that it’s hard to make history.”