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The Defensive Strategy That Won UConn Its Second Straight Title

SportThe Defensive Strategy That Won UConn Its Second Straight Title

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Connecticut assistant coach Luke Murray went to sophomore center Donovan Clingan sometime in the middle of this season with a declaration. UConn was going to face Purdue in the national championship, and he’d better get familiar with Zach Edey. Murray and Clingan discussed how they would play the hypothetical matchup, and Clingan said he wanted to play him one-on-one and let the rest of the Huskies win the game.

Murray had the scout for Monday night’s title game, and the coaches decided to stick to Clingan’s request. He would play Edey one-on-one in the post, and Clingan would wall up and force Edey to make tough 2s while his teammates stayed attached on the perimeter and took away 3s. In the pick-and-roll, the Huskies would play two-on-two against Purdue point guard Braden Smith and Edey, not tagging the rollers, and again, staying attached to shooters.

“Statistically,” Clingan said, “it’s really hard to win games just scoring 2s.”

On Monday night, math and UConn’s giant won out. Edey got his, scoring 37 points on 25 shots, but Purdue made just one 3-pointer all night — and the Huskies finished one of the most dominant runs in NCAA Tournament history with a 75-60 win.

Pulling it off would have been impossible without Clingan, who is college basketball’s cheat code on the defensive end.

Few have dared to not bring a double team at Edey, or at least dig in from the perimeter and try to give him something to think about when he puts the ball on the floor. NC State had gone with that strategy on Saturday night, and the Boilermakers made 10 3-pointers, four of which were assisted by Edey on kickouts.

“We watched the film,” UConn guard Tristen Newton said. “They get their 3-pointers off people going down there and helping on Edey.”

Murray also studied the numbers this weekend and noticed a trend in Purdue’s efficiency numbers. Purdue’s success didn’t really hinge on whether Edey was “good or great or excellent.” He always scores, finishing in double figures every game this season. What mattered was the production of starting guards Lance Jones, Fletcher Loyer and Smith along with knockdown shooter Mason Gillis off the bench, particularly what they did beyond the 3-point line. The goal was to keep Edey somewhere between 25 and 28 points, and keep those four under 20.

Yes, Edey surpassed his total, but those other four combined for 17, with Gillis and Loyer both going scoreless.

How that happened was because of what UConn’s guards did as soon as Edey touched it. They left their big man on an island, refusing to leave their assignment.

When Smith got a ball screen, the goal was to send him left and try to slide under the screens, while Clingan would backpedal and not let Edey get behind him. If Edey won the race to the rim, it was going to require bringing in help. Purdue makes that really difficult, because its shooters lift so high up the floor, forcing whoever ends up tagging into a long closeout.

Smith is as good as it gets at making passes like this:

“The idea of a pick-and-roll is, try to put two on the ball and and be in a disadvantage and put stress on the defense,” Murray said. “(Clingan) just takes away a lot of that.”

The Huskies weren’t successful keeping Smith from going right, but Clingan made it so he didn’t need any help from his teammates. It’s an amazing ability for a man who is 7-foot-2 and 280 pounds. He shouldn’t be able to move that much mass backward so quickly, but this is why Clingan will be a lottery pick.

Clingan tried to play cat and mouse with Smith, faking at him as his teammate who got screened tried to get back in the play. From watching film, he knew that Smith preferred to pass the ball when he got up in the air, and the help defender has no choice but to commit. Smith got Clingan once early:

Clingan learned his lesson. The next time, he purposely dropped back, hoping it’d create some indecision for Smith, and it worked to perfection:

This is what Clingan has done all year. Even when he’s not in position, the fear of his shot-blocking spooks opponents. Even Edey was victim to it, missing three shots at the rim that he’d normally make and traveling once when he kept trying to fake Clingan, who wouldn’t bite.

As is typically the case, the Huskies completely change up their game plan when backup center Samson Johnson gets in the game, which is difficult for opponents to adjust to but seamless for UConn. With Johnson, the plan was to double-team Edey, cheating off Camden Heide and then recovering once the ball went back out. The first time Edey saw that, he threw it over Heide’s head and Purdue was called for an over-and-back.

Smith made the right decisions, finishing with eight assists and just one turnover. He had only two reads, really; either feed Edey or try to score himself. He’s killed drop coverage this year with his pull-up jumper, but he made only 2-of-7 jumpers against the Huskies, who purposely tried to wear him down with constant ball pressure from Stephon Castle and Hassan Diarra.

“We’ve played against athletes, played against some really good defensive guys this year and in the tournament, but not the collection of defensive players like UConn has,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “We played against somebody, they would have a lock-down defender. These guys are bringing lock-down defenders off the bench.”

The Huskies are relentless, defending with maximum effort every single play and never missing any of the details that their coaches lay out. It’s how they got through this tournament with the closest game being a 14-point win against Alabama. It’s how they kept Purdue to one 3-pointer for only the third time in Painter’s 19 years at the school.

In case you were wondering, those other two games were losses too, including the last time it happened: Feb. 26, 2022, in a loss at Michigan State when the Boilers went 1-of-9 from 3. Edey got his then too, scoring 25.

In three of Purdue’s four losses heading into Monday night, the Boilers had made five or fewer 3s.

Give up 37 to Edey? Many programs would have feared such a scenario. But the Huskies trusted the numbers and Clingan.

“Math won,” Murray said.

Just as they predicted.

(Top photo of Donovan Clingan defending Zach Edey: Jamie Squire / Getty Images)


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