UConn men's notes: Freshman Stephon Castle playing like a veteran

Mar. 29—BOSTON — Freshman Stephon Castle is about all the right things.

He's about winning and doing everything that he can to help the UConn basketball team reach its Final Four destination.

He's been that way since arriving on the Storrs campus.

"He allows it to be about UConn because he has great parents," coach Dan Hurley said. "He understands the world doesn't revolve around him."

His team-first approach also has helped him make a huge impact this season, including in his first NCAA tournament, in his starting backcourt role. He posted an impressive 16 points and a team-best 11 rebounds in Thursday's 82-52 East Region Sweet 16 blowout of San Diego State.

Castle is averaging 12.3 points and 6.0 rebounds in three tournament games. He will play in the regional final on Saturday (6:09 p.m.) against Illinois at TD Garden.

"He's making a big impact," Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. "He's an elite defender. Elite. He competes really hard. It's very hard to find freshmen that play that hard, that know how to play that hard.

"Usually, they've been coddled and told how great they are for the first six years of being in basketball, so they think they're great and arrived. (Castle) knows how to play really, really hard. He's a great slasher. His offensive game is developing."

It's also hard to find a freshman playing a prominent role in college basketball. Teams are loaded with experienced players due to the transfer portal. Players also have the option of an extra year of eligibility granted from the COVID pandemic.

Illinois' starting five includes two graduate players, a fifth-year senior, a senior and a sophomore.

Castle, a ruggedly built 6-foot-6 guard, has the physical and mental tools to compete against older players. And he doesn't back down from a challenge. He's been poised as a veteran, committing only two turnovers.

"It wasn't too much of an adjustment for me," said Castle, the All-Big East freshman of the year. "I've been playing older guys pretty much my whole life. At the end of the day, it's just basketball. If you can change the game and affect the game in so many different ways, it takes away that age factor a little bit.

"If you show your maturity on the court and you stay poised, I feel like it doesn't hurt you in any kind of way."

Backcourt partner Tristen Newton is impressed with how Castle has handled the transition from high school to college.

"We know Steph is a great player," Newton said. "It's hard to come into UConn as a freshman, even last year for me coming in as a senior, because it's a different level of basketball. It's hard to come in here and just adjust your playing style to how coach (Hurley) needs you to play. But he bought in and he's been playing well the past couple of weeks."

Defense, defense, defense

UConn and Illinois are the two highest-rated offensive teams in the country.

But defense will likely decide the outcome of Saturday's Elite Eight.

The Huskies have the statistical edge in that category. They've allowed just 63.6 points per game this season compared to the Fighting Illini's 73.2.

UConn has given up under 59 points in four straight games, the program's longest stretch accomplishing the feat since the 2006-07 season.

A top priority will be containing All-Big Ten first team guard Terrence Shannon Jr., a 6-foot-6 fifth-year senior. He's on a tear, averaging 28.3 points in three NCAA tournament games.

"He's playing like one of the best college players in the country," redshirt sophomore Alex Karaban said. "He's so unique. In transition, he really gets going. He's like a freight train attacking the basket. He's shooting the ball extremely well from three especially.

"He's one task that we need to get ready for."

Shannon was suspended indefinitely in late December after being charged with rape. He was eventually reinstated to the team. He has a preliminary hearing date in May. He's been unavailable to the media during the NCAA tournament.

Familiar foes

UConn's Cam Spencer and Quincy Guerrier of Illinois, both graduate players, have some familiarity with their Elite Eight opponents.

While at Rutgers last season, Spencer faced Illinois, finishing with just two points on 1 for 5 shooting in a 69-60 loss on Feb. 11, 2023.

Playing at Oregon, Guerrier had five points and two rebounds in an 83-59 loss at the Phil Knight Invitational in Portland on Nov. 24, 2022.

"They're a great team," Guerrier said. "Their offense is really good. They play good defense, too. ... We've got to be focused on our game, how we've been defending. We're going to have to be really physical with them defensively and take care of defensive rebounds so we can push in transition."

Both veteran players will be in the starting lineup for Saturday's game.

UConn not must see TV

Illinois graduate guard Marcus Domask has watched a lot of NCAA tournament games, just not much of UConn's run.

"Honestly, I watched the exciting games but they've been blowing out teams, so I haven't really followed them," Domask said. "We'll be watching a lot of film, so we'll have a good understanding of what they do."

Who can blame him?

UConn has blown away its first three Madness March opponents, winning by an average of 28.7 points.

News and notes

UConn and Illinois both had 90-minute closed practices at TD Garden on Friday. ... In preparation for Saturday's game, Hurley watched film of Illinois' 71-64 loss to Marquette last November. ... Spencer on comparing Big Ten basketball to the Big East's style: "I would say the physicality is pretty similar. Big, strong, athletic people in both leagues. I think the Big East is probably a little bit faster. The Big Ten is probably a little more of a half-court offense kind of league."