A magic mesh: With 4 diverse personalities, UConn’s backcourt stars are locked in on only one thing

BOSTON – When Cam Spencer got on campus, the last piece of the dominant puzzle Dan Hurley and UConn’s staff put together, his first interaction with the other guards came on the court in a series of one-on-one games.

“I’m a competitor so I wanted to see what kind of game everybody had, I’m sure they thought the same thing about me,” he said.

It got intense, just how he likes it. Some extra fouling. Some trash talk.

“We all went at each other’s necks,” Hassan Diarra said.

Tristen Newton had already played in 117 college basketball games and Diarra 94, their last game action was on the raised court in Houston, ending with a confetti shower and a national championship trophy. Spencer had already played in 92 games for two different schools but, like Stephon Castle, who Diarra called the “little brother,” the only time he’d put on a UConn uniform was for the classic photoshoot on his recruiting trip.

The newcomers earned their stripes.

“We were a little mad at each other but we got to the locker room and we laughed it off,” Diarra said. “That’s how it’s supposed to be, we’re just all a bunch of competitors.”

“It’s like a family so you’re gonna compete hard on the court with your brothers and whoever wins is probably gonna be happy, whoever loses is probably gonna be pissed off,” said Spencer. “Especially as a new guy, you’re trying to earn everybody’s respect and that was the first part. … I don’t remember (who won) but probably me. I don’t leave after losing. We’re gonna keep playing ’til I win.”

Now Newton and Diarra, and the other returners, are playing so the new guys can win – and, of course, so they can win again.

The four guards combined for 61 points in UConn’s 82-52 Sweet 16 win, a rematch of that national championship game against San Diego State. They alone outscored the Aztecs by nine.

They’ve been catalysts for UConn’s unselfish offense, each averaging more than 2.5 assists per game. Newton and Spencer, polar opposite personalities, have joined forces to form what they believe is the best backcourt in the country.

“There’s not really much to say,” Newton said.

Castle, the dominant defender, has picked up on some of Newton’s tendencies as the quiet one, the introvert. Diarra is the sparkplug off the bench, a pest of a New York City guard with quick hands and a knack for getting to loose balls. Newton called him “the voice” of the team.

“All four of us just have such a love for basketball and for winning and that’s why we mesh so well together,” Spencer said.

“You’ve got two and two, kind of balance each other out. Steph and Tristen are a little more on the calmer side or just laid back but they’re both competitors as well, same as Hass and I. We just emotionally go about it in different ways.”

Spencer’s trash talk and his fist pump has become a staple. Diarra often finds himself on the floor beneath the basket after finishing a layup through contact, after which he always flexes both arms downward and lets out a roar. Newton, always in the ear of his opponent, quietly antagonizing, rarely expresses more than his classic phone call celebration. Castle’s on-court expressions, much less frequent, are a mix of the three.

“I would say I’m probably the most outgoing, the most talkative,” Diarra said. “Tristen is kind of the introvert but you get to know him and he’ll talk more. Cam is actually smarter than you’d think. He’s intense, he’s the most intense one, and then Steph is like the little brother. He’s the young one, he’s very curious and he’s also like an introvert as well.”

Newton and Spencer, fire and ice, went back and forth as UConn’s top scorer throughout the season and were both named first team All-Big East. Castle was the league’s Freshman of the Year and Diarra the top sixth man.

They’ve all fit perfectly in Hurley’s formula.

“I think getting players with a lot of life to them, trying to avoid zombies and dead-heads on your roster, outgoing, different types of personality, it helps you in these bigger moments,” Hurley said. “That’s something that we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about with a couple of those years where we didn’t play our best in March, was get guys that are alive, that aren’t gonna shrink when the lights get bright in March. It’s a very diverse locker room, they have a lot of fun in there. It’s a lively place.”

While Newton, Spencer and Castle were separated in breakout rooms to speak with media, Diarra sat in the locker room with the rest of the reserves, giving his best effort at pronouncing Massachusetts towns in front of camera – Gloucester (Glos-stir) held up the group.

Diarra doesn’t envy all of the attention and praise his teammates have gotten.

“It’s truly amazing, super proud of all of them,” he said. “Definitely you’ve got to sacrifice things, but I understand it’s a sacrifice for the better, for winning, being a part of something more than yourself, being part of something special. I think we’ve built that here and to be a part of it is truly a blessing.”

Solo Ball sat alone in his corner locker, next to Newton as he was surrounded by a swarm of reporters and TV cameras after the Sweet 16 win, hood up, head down with his eyes on his phone and his ears on Newton. Taking in as much as he could, learning for when the spotlight is eventually his.

The freshman was thrust into UConn’s starting lineup early on as Castle recovered from a knee injury. But his playing time dropped as the season went on, sparse minutes coming solely in garbage time.

“I learn so much from them every day,” he said. “We have four great guards in line, they’re playing tremendous and I’m just waiting my turn.”

The group’s unselfishness is its greatest strength. There is no “toxic (stuff),” as Hurley put it.

“You can’t deny when you watch this team play that it’s a fun team to watch because the ball moves and we share it, and we play for each other,” Hurley said. “You can see the culture. You can see the energy. You can see the personalities up and down the organization. It’s been a great team, it’s just been a fun team. We finally have figured out the formula.”