Graduate point guard Tristen Newton reflects on two-year run at UConn that changed his life

GLENDALE, Ariz. – After taking in the confetti shower, watching “One Shining Moment” and cutting down the nets, the UConn men’s basketball team had five minutes together in its locker room after winning a second straight national championship on Monday night.

Head coach Dan Hurley walked into the circle of players with cups of water to throw around and was doused before continuing the tradition of slamming a ball into the floor, dislodging a ceiling tile above.

“That’s the best five minutes of the day,” assistant coach Luke Murray said. “Only the guys that are in that room at that time know what we go through.”

For players like Tristen Newton, who’s been with the program for the last two years after transferring in from East Carolina and was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, the moment was surreal, a challenge to define with words.

“I wouldn’t trade this for the world,” said the graduate point guard nicknamed “Mr. Triple-Double,” who led the team with 20 points, five rebounds and seven assists without a turnover. “UConn’s changed my life for the better. I love Connecticut.”

Five years after coming out of high school with zero stars attached to his recruiting profile, Newton established his case next to Kemba Walker and Shabazz Napier as one of the best UConn guards of all time. He shut down the criticism that he wasn’t a “true point guard” and wouldn’t be a great fit with the Huskies. Now he’s a two-time national champion, an All-American, a Big East regular-season and tournament champion, with a school-record four triple-doubles – he’s won it all.

Everything Hurley said when he convinced Newton to come to Connecticut, and then when he did it again after Newton tested pro waters last summer, has rung true.

“Still to this day. He told me (if) I come here I’m gonna end up in the draft conversation and win a national championship, and then when I came back he said I was gonna up my numbers and get even more in the NBA Draft conversation. So you know, back-to-back national championships, playing well, the accomplishments that I’ve had here, I can’t thank him enough for that,” Newton said.

“Last year I didn’t really have a big scoring role and a ball-handling role, but it wasn’t deserved. (Jordan) Hawkins and Adama (Sanogo), they deserved that so that’s what they got last year and coach told me this year if I come back, it’ll be my time. So he told me the truth on that and it worked out well.”

Starting in 78 of his 79 games with the Huskies, Newton averaged 10.1 points last year. Embracing his larger role, he finished this season averaging a team-best 15.1 points and 6.2 assists per game, his 6.6 rebounds were second just behind star center Donovan Clingan.

NBA Draft predictors had Newton going somewhere late in the second round, but his stock will likely take a bounce after his tournament performance.

He had 11 points in the first half on Monday and nine points, four rebounds and five assists in the second, including a pair of alley-oop tosses to Samson Johnson and a layup around the towering Zach Edey, after which he gestured to the 7-foot-4 two-time national player of the year that he was too small.

His calm, reserved personality – which, in games, can bring out a subtle antagonist – found a balance with Hurley’s fiery sideline demeanor in their second season together after some growing pains last year. Hurley and the staff has acknowledged how much his presence taught them about different character traits, how they can all fit together to form a perfect locker room.

“I feel like I’m a more calm person now. All of that yelling and stuff, it just makes you a calm guy, well just me personally,” Newton said. “I know a lot more about life and personality since I’ve been here in Storrs. There will never be a brotherhood and a team that cares about you as much as UConn does and UConn Nation, wherever I go,” he said. “This is the best basketball and the most loved basketball I’ve ever felt in my life.”