Stephon Castle’s Statement Sends UConn Back to Men’s Title Game

The freshman was the Huskies’ best player against Alabama and likely helped his NBA draft stock.
Castle was the Huskies’ best player against the Crimson Tide and likely helped his NBA draft stock.
Castle was the Huskies’ best player against the Crimson Tide and likely helped his NBA draft stock. / Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
In this story:

Stephon Castle isn’t your typical one-and-done freshman. 

Physically, his chiseled frame makes him blend in far more with the UConn Huskies’ veterans than your average freshman. He plays a mature game, happy to sit down in a stance and defend his man without the traditional worries about stacking counting stats to pad his NBA draft stock. He signed up to play for a coach in Dan Hurley who makes no qualms about how hard he coaches his players and picked a place where he’d be surrounded by veterans with championship aspirations. 

“When you watch us practice on a recruiting visit, you see just how maniacal we are … in June, July, May, October, the day after Christmas,” Hurley said in March. “You know what you’re getting into. We’re ruthless competitors.” 

That didn’t spook Castle. 

That it didn’t probably should have foreshadowed the type of performance he put on in Saturday’s Final Four win over the Alabama Crimson Tide. On the biggest stage in college basketball, Castle delivered the finest performance of his career, exploding offensively for 21 points to help the Huskies hold off a feisty Crimson Tide bunch. In a game with multiple future NBA players on the floor, Castle was clearly the best player in the game, making a huge two-way impact that keyed the Huskies’ 11th straight double-figure NCAA tournament win. 

Castle hasn’t always been an assertive offensive player this season, settling into the background of the beautiful UConn offense and making his hay in transition. Alabama tested that, sagging off Castle defensively to try to dare him to shoot. Castle didn’t take the bait and was in attack mode from the jump, tallying 13 points in the first half to lead all scorers at the break. He drove confidently to the rim, made tough floaters and even cashed in a pair of threes, helping withstand a bevy of Alabama threes to take a four-point lead into the locker room. 

“It was kind of a disrespect on their end just to guard that far back,” Castle said. “I took advantage of it early.”

Even while battling foul trouble, Castle had his fingerprints all over UConn’s defining second-half surge. Alabama had punched back well, tying the game at 56 with 12:41 to play and putting the Huskies on their heels for the first time all tournament. Instead of returners like Tristen Newton, Alex Karaban and Donovan Clingan or fifth-year senior Cam Spencer being the one to step up in that type of moment. First came a key offensive rebound in traffic off a Spencer miss that produced a pair of free throws. Castle then knocked down a tough floater in the lane to stretch the lead to four, sparking what became an 8–0 run that gave UConn a lead the Huskies wouldn’t relinquish. 

The coming-out party might have been a surprise to Alabama, but it wasn’t inside the UConn locker room. Hurley has lauded Castle’s work ethic and mentality from the moment he was publicly allowed to comment on the five-star’s commitment, lauding him for caring about “the things that really matter” and being a perfect fit for the UConn culture. 

“When you got to the first practice, whether you ripped him or encouraged him, everything was, ‘Yes, Coach,’” Hurley said. 

That mentality also quickly ingratiated Castle with his UConn teammates.  

“He’s not like any other freshman,” Clingan said of Castle. “He’s out there to do whatever his team needs for him to do to win … He’s the most unselfish player on the team.”

“You could tell on his [recruiting] visits,” Newton said. “It’s never really about Steph, it’s always about the team and winning games.” 

The dominant showing Saturday figures to make Castle some money in June’s NBA draft, which is perceived as fairly wide open at the top. While not perfect, Castle’s size and defensive instincts have made him a high-floor prospect, and showings like this one offensively show off a tantalizing ceiling for teams to tap into. But there’s plenty of time to worry about Castle’s draft stock. The focus from Castle, as it has been all year, has been on helping deliver a repeat national championship to UConn. That unselfish culture established at the top and trickled down through the entire Huskies program has keyed the program’s remarkable March dominance and now replenishes itself with pieces like Castle wanting to join the party. 

“[UConn’s culture] is very rare, but we have a lot of rare guys in this locker room,” Castle said. “It’s rare to go back-to-back, but we’re the team that’s doing it.”


Published
Kevin Sweeney

KEVIN SWEENEY

Kevin Sweeney is a staff writer at Sports Illustrated covering college basketball and the NBA Draft, and is an analyst for The Field of 68. A graduate of Northwestern, Kevin is a voter for the Naismith Trophy and is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association (USBWA).