Guards could take spotlight when UConn, Alabama square off in Men’s Final Four

UConn’s Tristen Newton, who has occasionally struggled from behind the arc, practices incorporating dribbling moves into his 3-point shot. (Photo by Bennett Silvyn/Cronkite News)

GLENDALE – Much talk in the Men’s NCAA Tournament has centered around the UConn Huskies and whether they will be the first team to win back-to-back national championships since the Univesity of Florida in 2006 and 2007.

But conversation should also steer toward guard play in Saturday’s much-anticipated Final Four meeting between the Huskies and Alabama Crimson Tide at State Farm Stadium, beginning with Alabama’s Aaron Estrada.

“I don’t know where it came from, but that’s just how I am as a person. I’m super competitive (and) I want to be the best at everything,” Estrada said. “I think my preparation is important to me (and) that carries with me.”

Also preparing for game-changing performances Saturday are Alabama’s Mark Sears and UConn’s Tristen Newton.

Sears, an AP Second-Team All-American, has been an underdog his entire career. Originally from Muscle Shoals, Alabama, he began his college journey at Ohio University, where he averaged 19 points and six rebounds a game as a sophomore and 8.5 points and three assists as a freshman.

Following an impressive sophomore season at Ohio, Sears jumped to playing for coach Nate Oats in Tuscaloosa, where he took the basketball scene by storm. This season, Sears has averaged 21.5 points per game to go along with four rebounds and four assists.

Oats admits his recruiting errors in retrospect when reflecting on Sears’ career.

“We screwed up,” Oats said when asked about not getting Sears earlier. “He’s obviously good enough.”

Not only is Sears shining in the brightest of moments, but his leadership skills have improved during this run so much that Oats is letting him talk during timeouts, especially in the Elite Eight. Sears exploded for 23 points while sinking seven 3-pointers.

“He’s talking in huddles (and) he’s making sure that he knows what the scouting report is so that he can really talk through with some of these younger guys what we have to do,” Oats said.

Not only is the Alabama coach happy to have Sears rolling with the tide, but so are his teammates, especially senior forward Grant Nelson.

“I know (Mark) works harder than I’ve ever seen any teammate I’ve ever been around,” Nelson said.

Similar to Sears, Newton transferred to the Huskies from a smaller program, East Carolina University. He always believed he could play at a higher level, and has proven so.

Alabama’s Mark Sears practices executing lob passes to his teammates, anticipating the challenges posed by UConn’s tenacious defense. (Photo by Bennett Silvyn/Cronkite News)

This season, Newton has averaged an impressive 15 points, six rebounds and six assists while being a defensive specialist for the Huskies.

After receiving AP First Team All-American honors, Newton saw his growth in production and from a leadership standpoint.

“I go out there and show the young guys what they need to do. I’m not going to yell at you, but if I see something wrong, I’ll pull you to the side or I’ll show you how to do it,” Newton about his leadership approach.

Newton’s strategy not only helps his teammates get better each day but also his coaches, especially coach Dan Hurley, who credits Newton for teaching him the most since arriving on campus.

“I would say Tristen has been the biggest thing (and) the evolution of our relationship. I think as a coach sometimes you want your players personality-wise to mirror you, (and) have my same level of intensity, my same level of energy,” Hurley said.

Sears and Newton approach the game and leadership in different manners. Sears, a smaller and offensive-minded guard, looks to control a game through his ability to score and create for himself and others.

Newton, meanwhile, is a taller, physical guard who strikes fear in his opponents with his intense defense. This season, Newton has a 98.3 defensive rating to go along with his 1.2 steals per game.

Usually, when opposing teams have different leadership styles they differ in playing style, but in the case of Alabama and UConn, it is the opposite.

Both teams have electric offenses propelled by playing fast, shooting a barrage of threes, and looking for the most efficient shot. UConn is the top-rated offense, according to KenPom, and Alabama is right behind the Huskies at third, only trailing Purdue.

The comparisons stop on defense.

UConn forces its opponents to turn the ball over and capitalizes on those opportunities, but that does not change Hurley’s preparation for Saturday.

“We’ve been brilliant. We’ve been great,” Hurley said. “The thing about this tournament (is) that none of this matters on Saturday. We are going to have this two-hour game versus Alabama (and) if we’re not on point, we won’t play Monday,”

Like Hurley, Oats realizes the high stakes in Alabama’s first Final Four.

“Here is a chance to win the biggest championship out of all of them,” he said. “While I don’t want to take anything away from making a Final Four, ’cause it’s special, something that’s never been done in school history, but there’s still two games to be played. The biggest championship of all is still sitting in front of us. We need to get locked in and play it.”

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Addison Kalmbach expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in business. Kalmbach has interned in broadcast operations at FOX Sports and as a digital reporter with PHOENIX Magazine and Detroit City FC. He also has done freelance work for R1S1 Sports.

Bennett Silvyn BEH-nit SIL-vin
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Bennett Silvyn expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in business, marketing and sports management. Silvyn has interned in marketing and social media for the Arizona Sports and Entertainment Commission, as a reporter for Arizona Foothills Magazine, in sponsorships for the Arizona Rattlers and in social and digital media for FC Tucson. Silvyn has also reported for the Walter Cronkite Sports Network and The State Press.