UConn's Stephon Castle is an anomaly in this NCAA title game -- a blue-chip, 5-star recruit

GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — The Purdue vs. UConn matchup in Monday night's NCAA Tournament title game is in many ways an ode to blue-collar, no-frills basketball. Lots of relatively unheralded recruits. A few transfers from mid-major schools.

Still, there's nothing quite like elite talent.

That's where UConn's Stephon Castle comes into the picture.

The 6-foot-6 freshman from Covington, Georgia, is an anomaly in this year's Final Four — a blue-chip, five-star McDonald's All-American who could have chosen just about any school in the country. Now in the final games of an impressive freshman season, Castle is showing why he has a bright NBA future and could be a game-changing force in the title game.

The freshman led the Huskies with 21 points on 7 of 13 shooting in the national semifinals against Alabama, providing much-needed scoring punch against a tough Tide team that pushed UConn until the final minutes of its 86-72 win.

“He's about all the right stuff,” Huskies fifth-year guard Cam Spencer said. "He comes from a great family, they're at every game and I see them after every game. Love talking to them. He's just a humble kid who wants to impact winning any way that he can.

“From day one, I could see how humble he was. No ego. He's been a great player all year.”

Castle's had a handful of standout offensive performances over the past few months. He scored 21 points on 9 of 12 shooting in a win over Seton Hall on March 3, avenging one of the team's few losses from earlier in the season. He also had 16 points and 11 rebounds against San Diego State in the Sweet 16.

“We all saw how talented he was in high school, so we never had a question of how he'd fit in," UConn guard Alex Karaban said. “Then during his visits, we saw his personality, that he was super unselfish and only cared about winning.”

On many nights, the Big East Freshman of the Year doesn't have to be the hero, deferring to his experienced and productive teammates. The Huskies' leading scorer, Tristen Newton, is in his fifth season of college basketball. The second-leading scorer, Spencer, is 24 years old.

Castle has averaged 10.7 points and 4.7 rebounds this season, fitting seamlessly into the UConn juggernaut that's looking to become the first repeat men's basketball champion since Florida accomplished the feat in 2007.

One reason is he's also good on the defensive end, using his 6-foot-6, 215-pound frame to make life tough on opposing perimeter players. He has soaked up UConn's winning culture in a hurry.

“They've done it before and they know what it takes to be in this position,” Castle said. “Just to have them behind me, know that they believe in me, it gives me a lot of confidence as a freshman to go out there and play my game.”

Like Spencer, UConn coach Dan Hurley credited Castle's parents — Stacey and Quannette — for the freshman's low-maintenance attitude. Hurley's hard-charging coaching personality might not be for everyone, but Castle was intrigued from the moment he met him.

“I remember my first recruiting visit, going to practice, and seeing how hard he coached the guys,” Castle said. “That's the kind of coach I wanted to play for. I'd been playing for my dad and he was always on me, keeping me as accountable as possible.”

Hurley remembers that day the same way. He appreciates that Castle's recruitment never turned into a fiasco.

"He was decisive,” Hurley said. “He watched us practice, he saw our culture, he wanted to be coached hard. They wanted an old-school environment for him."

Castle's production is noteworthy because there's been a little less reliance on freshmen throughout college basketball over the past few years. Some of that is due to the extra year of eligibility granted to players because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but there are other factors.

According to data from the NCAA, the number of incoming freshmen in Division I men’s basketball fell by 18.2% from the 2019-20 pre-pandemic season (1,106) to 2021-22 (905). The latter was the first season after a rule change allowing all undergraduate athletes to transfer once without having to sit out a season.

Castle's so good he's broken the recent mold. He's a potential NBA lottery pick this summer, but there will be time to worry about that later.

The national title game awaits.

“It's just been the perfect situation for him because his draft stock is right where they want it to be right now, and he's won big,” Hurley said. “You can still do both, and everyone can win.”


AP College Basketball Writer Aaron Beard contributed to this report.


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