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Inside UConn’s defensive strategy that stopped Purdue and won a national title



Inside UConn's defensive strategy that stopped Purdue and won a national title

GLENDALE, Ariz. – Connecticut assistant coach Luke Murray went to second-year center Donovan Clingan with a statement sometime midway through this season. UConn was going to face Purdue in the national championship, and he better get to know 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 honor Clingan’s request. He played Edey one-on-one in the post, and Clingan would lock up and force Edey to make tough 2s while his teammates stuck to the rim and knocked down 3s. In the pick-and-roll, the Huskies played two-on-two against Purdue point guard Braden Smith and Edey, without tagging the rollers, and once again staying attached to shooters.

“Statistically,” Clingan said, “it’s really hard to win games with just two points.”

On Monday night, Math and UConn’s Giants won. 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 victory.

It would have been impossible without Clingan, college basketball’s cheat code on defense.

Few have dared not to double-team Edey, or at least dig in from the perimeter and give him something to think about when he puts the ball on the ground. NC State followed 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 three-pointers from people who go there and help out at Edey.”

Murray also looked at the numbers this weekend and noticed a trend in Purdue’s efficiency numbers. Purdue’s success didn’t really depend on whether Edey was “good, great or excellent.” He always scores and finishes every match in double figures 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, especially what they did beyond the three-point line. The goal was to hold Edey to somewhere between 25 and 28 points, and keep those four under 20.

Yes, Edey exceeded his total, but the other four combined for 17, with Gillis and Loyer both left scoreless.

How that happened was because of what UConn’s guards did as soon as Edey touched it. They left their great man behind on an island and refused to abandon their mission.

When Smith was hit with a ball screen, the goal was to send him to his left and try to slide under the screens, while Clingan would backpedal and not let Edey get behind him. If Edey were to win the race to the edge, help would be needed. Purdue makes that very difficult because the shooters get so high on the floor, forcing whoever ultimately taps 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 get at a disadvantage and put pressure on the defense,” Murray said. “(Clingan) just takes a lot of that away.”

The Huskies were unable to stop Smith from moving to the right, but Clingan made sure he didn’t need any help from his teammates. It’s an astonishing ability for a 6-foot-4, 280-pound man. He shouldn’t be able to move that much mass back so quickly, but this is why Clingan will be a lottery pick.

Clingan tried to play a cat-and-mouse game with Smith, pretending that his teammate, who was being screened, was trying to get back into the game. From watching the film, he knew that Smith preferred to pass the ball when he got in the air, and the help defender has no choice but to commit. Smith got Clingan too early once:

Clingan has learned his lesson. The next time he backtracked on purpose, hoping it would lead Smith to indecision, and it worked to perfection:

This is what Clingan has been doing all year. Even when he’s out of position, the fear of his shot being blocked scares opponents. Even Edey fell victim to it, missing three shots at the rim he would normally make and traveling once as he kept trying to mimic Clingan, who wouldn’t bite.

As is usually the case, the Huskies completely change their game plan when backup center Samson Johnson comes into the game, which is difficult for opponents to adjust to, but seamless for UConn. With Johnson, the plan was to double Edey, deceive Camden Heide and then recover as soon as the ball went out again. 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 and finished with eight assists and just one turnover. He had actually only read twice; feed Edey or try to score yourself. This year he killed drop coverage with his pull-up jumper, but he made just 2 of 7 jumpers against the Huskies, who deliberately tried to wear him down with constant ball pressure from Stephon Castle and Hassan Diarra.

“We’ve played against some really good defensive guys this year and in the tournament, but not the collection of defensive players that UConn has,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “We played against someone who would have done that a locked defender. These guys take the lock-down defenders off the bench.”

The Huskies are ruthless, defending every play with maximum effort and never missing the details their coaches point out. That’s how they got through this tournament, with the closest game being a 14-point win against Alabama. Thus, they held Purdue to one three-pointer for 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 to Michigan State when the Boilers went 1-for-9 from 3. Edey got his then too, scored 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)