Overlooked and underappreciated no longer, Newton, Spencer lead UConn men to Sweet 16

Mar. 26—They've belonged to the overlooked and underappreciated club for most of their playing careers.

But it's getting difficult for graduate guards Tristen Newton and Cam Spencer to keep their memberships now that they've earned the spotlight as partners in UConn's talented starting backcourt.

The Huskies are considered favorites to win their second straight national championship due in part to the duo's outstanding play.

Newton and Spencer rank first and second, respectively, on the team in scoring and assists as well as providing valuable leadership, championship-level poise under pressure and a team-first attitude. They're both All-Big East first team selections while Newton was named to the Associated Press All-America first team.

"I think the best backcourt in the country is Tristen Newton and Cam Spencer," said Jay Wright, a Hall of Famer and studio and game analyst for CBS Sports. "Those two are incredible. I'm amazed at what Cam Spencer has brought to this team as a leader."

Top-seeded UConn (33-3) continues its NCAA tournament run Thursday against No. 5 seed San Diego State in Sweet 16 action at 7:39 p.m. at TD Garden in Boston.

Newton and Spencer have taken similar routes to Storrs, arriving at UConn later in their careers as veteran transfers.

They were not highly recruited out of high school, both receiving just one offer despite impressive high school careers.

Newton, an El Paso, Texas, native, went to East Carolina while Spencer, who's from Davidsonville, Maryland, headed to Loyola in his home state.

They appreciated the opportunity to play Division I college basketball but eventually wanted to compete at a higher level.

Newton had three productive seasons at East Carolina, scoring 17.7 points per game in his final season there before deciding to transfer after coach Joe Dooley got fired.

At UConn, Newton started to gain some national recognition after helping the Huskies win the program's fifth national championship.

It's hard to overlook what Newton has done this season, averaging team-bests in points (15.3) and assists (6.2) while chipping in 5.8 rebounds per game. Overall, he's had one of the best two-year stretches of any guard in the program's storied history.

"I feel like I could have played here since my freshman year," Newton said. "I've always had that type of confidence. After coach Dooley got fired, I just felt like if I was going to play for a new coach, it would be a coach that I chose. Coach (Dan) Hurley was the perfect fit for me.

"UConn is one of the best programs in basketball history, so being a part of this program is a blessing. It's something that I'm very thankful for."

Spencer made one other stop, spending a year at Rutgers before coming to UConn as a graduate transfer this season.

While Spencer is a vital contributor for the No. 1-ranked team in college basketball, he still carries a chip on his shoulder from his time as overlooked and unappreciated. He's second on the team in scoring (14.4 points) while also contributing 4.4 rebounds and 3.6 assists. He's also one of the country's top 3-point shooters, converting at a 44% clip.

"As a competitor, I always want to prove people wrong," Spencer said. "I had one college offer. I still try to play with that chip that nobody wanted me at a point in time and try to go prove people wrong every game, every day.

"It will always be there."

Hurley believes the pair benefited from flying under the radar during their careers. It has pushed them to become the players and people that they are today.

"Just in life in general, you're so much better off being undervalued and being underrated," Hurley said. "Eventually, everyone gets what they deserve in terms of the opportunities and the accolades. But I think that they've had to earn it and there's a lot of value there, there's a lot of character that's built, there's a lot of drive and ambition and there's a lack of entitlement.

"It does so much for your locker room. These guys show up every day like they've won nothing."

Spencer and Newton have great respect for each other. They share an unwavering unselfish attitude and a fierce competitive drive.

They're all about winning.

"It's never about me personally," Newton said. "It's just going out there and performing so I can help the team win. That's how it's been my whole life."

Their personalities are quite different, though, especially on the court.

Spencer is a fiery guy, prone to celebratory outbursts, while Newton is laid-back and rarely shows emotion.

"It's fire and ice," Hurley said. "It's an intense guy with a cool customer."

Newton added: "We're pretty opposite but we get along very well. That's just him. When we talk, he's calm with me. Whenever he's doing all the yelling and stuff, let him do him. If that gets him to play better, yell as much as you want to, so it's fine with me."

It didn't take long for Newton and Spencer to develop a bond on the court.

Spencer quickly found out he embraces the same mentality and approach as Newton.

"We just play the game in such a similar way," Spencer said. "The fact that we just want to make the right play, hit the open man, make the open shot and just do anything to help the team win is what we're all about. We really clicked from day one."

In UConn's NCAA tournament games in Brooklyn on Friday and Sunday, Newton and Spencer delivered productive performances in two runaway wins.

Newton is averaging a team-high tying 16.5 points, 9.0 assists and 3.0 rebounds while shooting 12-for-21 from the field. Spencer's numbers are 13 points, 3.5 assists and 4.5 rebounds per game while converting 10-for-21.

Both players are determined to end their UConn careers by raising a national title trophy in Phoenix in April. They've already won a Big East regular season and tournament title this season.

So they're not satisfied with reaching the Sweet Sixteen.

"It's pretty cool," Spencer said. "It was the goal obviously to go from Brooklyn to Boston, so we're looking forward to that. We have four more to go, so that's what we're really focused on."