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Mar 19, 2024 4:47 pm

No. 1 UConn opens title defense vs. first-timer Stetson

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NEW YORK — Even with the historic wins by UMBC and Fairleigh Dickinson over the past five NCAA Tournaments, the task for a No. 16 seed in a first-round game is a difficult one.

But it’s an especially tall one this year for Stetson.

UConn will begin its pursuit of a second straight national championship Friday afternoon, when the top-seeded Huskies take on Stetson in an East Region first-round game at Barclays Center.

UConn (31-3) is the No. 1 team in the final regular-season AP poll as well as the top overall seed after winning the Big East tournament Saturday with a 73-57 victory over Marquette. The Huskies are trying to become the first repeat champion since Florida went back-to-back in 2006-07.

Stetson (22-12) earned the first NCAA Tournament berth in school history by edging Austin Peay, 94-91, in the Atlantic Sun title game March 10.

UConn picked up where it left off last year, when the Huskies earned the fifth national title in school history by winning six NCAA Tournament games by an average of 18.3 points.

The Huskies, whose 31 wins are tied for the most in the nation with James Madison, beat Indiana, Texas, North Carolina and Gonzaga by at least 10 points apiece in non-league play before winning 11 league games by double figures in the Big East, which was the nation’s second-ranked league per KenPom.com.

UConn then recorded three conference tournament wins by an average of 12.7 points. It enters the NCAA Tournament as the nation’s most efficient offensive team per KenPom.com, which also ranks the Huskies as the 11th-best defensive team in the country.

“It’s heavy to play at UConn — we don’t have the benefit to fly under the radar,” Huskies coach Dan Hurley said. “The benefit of playing and coaching at UConn is the expectations are so high, so the pressure is always on. So going into the NCAA Tournament, I think we wear the pressure well now.

“And doing what we did last year and having the season we’ve had this year, there’s a confidence about us.”

Stetson’s confidence was bolstered during a week off in which it got to enjoy the school’s milestone NCAA Tournament berth. The Hatters, who have been in Division I since 1971, became the third team in the 68-team field with their win over Austin Peay.

“It’s been incredible — not very many times do you have a week off after the championship,” Stetson coach Donnie Jones told the Orlando Sentinel. “We’ve had a week of a lot of love … dinners and celebrations and CBS and ESPN. We’ve had so much attention in the past week.”

Bottom-of-the-bracket teams got some unprecedented extra attention in 2018 and 2023, when UMBC and Fairleigh Dickinson became the only No. 16 seeds to topple a No. 1 seed in a first-round game when they stunned Virginia and Purdue, respectively.

But 17 of the other 18 games between those seeds since 2018 have been decided by 15 points or more.

“You just really focus on that they are just another opponent, keep your TV turned off and stop listening to everybody and what they say,” Jones said. “We just try to get our guys to understand that it’s just another basketball game.”

UConn has five players scoring in double figures, led by Tristen Newton (15.2 points per game), Cam Spencer (14.5) and Alex Karaban (13.9). Donovan Clingan is averaging 12.5 points and a team-high 7.2 rebounds while Stephon Castle is averaging 10.8 points per game.

Jalen Blackmon leads Stetson with 21.5 points per game. Stephan Swenson is averaging 13.8 points and a team-high 5.9 assists per game. Aubin Gateretse (11.8 points per game) and Alec Oglesby (10.9) are also scoring in double figures for the Hatters while Gateretse is pulling down 7.6 rebounds per game.

–Jerry Beach, Field Level Media

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