Dan Hurley’s message to his UConn newcomers: Beware the Big East

Joe Arruda/Hartford Courant/TNS

STORRS — Stephon Castle has been places. He played at Newton High in Georgia against some of the best high school programs in the nation. He was on the Under Armour AAU circuit with the Atlanta Xpress, was named a McDonald’s All-American and played with the U18 United States national team.

And UConn coach Dan Hurley still thinks playing a Big East schedule will be the “hardest thing he’s ever gonna go through in his life.”

Before the Huskies left on their foreign tour, a nine-day excursion in August with games in France and Spain, Castle was still finding his footing with the team. Teammates and coaches expressed how his confidence needs to continue to build, and Hurley emphasized that he needs to “play every single possession with no drop off.”

UConn men focused on getting touted freshman Stephon Castle adjusted to college game

UConn saw how its prized freshman point guard can fit once the Huskies took the court against an opponent. In those three international games, against lesser competition, Castle averaged 16.7 points on 60% shooting (18-of-30) from the field, 43% (3-of-7) from three, with four rebounds, 1.7 assists and 2.3 steals per game.

“It was great to see him out there,” Hurley said Friday. “I just think what you see with Steph is you see the most ready, physical freshman coming in. The physical aspects, the size (6 feet 6), athletic ability, the skill level with the ball, the passing. It’s just getting to the point where the freshmen don’t really understand just how hard this is gonna be, how hard the Big East games are gonna be, how every possession matters so much.

“Just how spot-on you’ve gotta be offensively and defensively. It’s gonna be just the hardest thing he’s ever gonna go through in his life, and (we’re) just getting him up to speed on everything.”

Castle, projected to be a one-and-done lottery pick in the 2024 NBA Draft before playing a college game, highlights a group of five incoming freshmen ranked among the best recruiting classes in the nation.

Entering his sixth year at UConn, Hurley says it is the “biggest group of freshmen (the team is) gonna need minutes from” as it looks to replace missing pieces from last year’s national championship squad.

“That time (in Europe) was great just to see the development of the young players and just to see them now in September, in the workouts the last couple of days especially, to see the improvement with a guy like Solo (Solomon Ball) who missed time with the injury,” Hurley said.

“To see Jaylin Stewart the last couple of days, Steph and Jayden Ross kind of hit the ground a lot easier, but those two guys (Ball and Stewart) were hurt a lot. I think the last couple days especially, they flashed their talent in a big way.”

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Hurley expects the Big East to be “far superior” to what it was last year, when he said the conference had four of the best eight teams in the country. UConn finished fourth in the Big East standings with a 13-7 record last season and lost to Marquette in the tournament semifinal at Madison Square Garden before beginning its national championship run.

Cam Spencer, the veteran guard who transferred in from Rutgers and was called a “freaking killer” by his high school coach Cliff Rees, feels like the Big Ten toughness he got used to last year will help him be prepared once Big East play begins.

“I’ve heard the Big Ten is one of the more physical conferences, I think it’s a little more old school (in) playing through a lot of the bigs and battling down in the post,” he said. “I think the Big East is a little bit faster of a game, but at least from Rutgers to UConn we play at a faster pace. So more transition and just learning those kinds of things, and learning how to play in a different system is really what I’m focused on.

“One of the things as a new guy coming in and learning a new system and learning how to play with different guys, I think we do a great job of playing a lot of live, live basketball and live competition in the summer and fall. It feels like we know each other’s games right now and the chemistry is there. I can’t wait to get the season started.”