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

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Connecticut assistant coach Luke Murray went with second-year center Donovan Clingan sometime midway through this season with an announcement. UConn was going to face Purdue in the national championship, and it better get to know Zach Eddy. Murray and Clingan discussed how they would play the hypothetical game, and Clingan said he wanted to play him one-on-one and let the rest of the Huskies win the game.

Murray had scouts for Monday night's title game, and the coaches decided to abide by Clingan's request. He was playing Edey one-on-one in the post, and Clingan was on the wall and forcing Edey to make tough moves while his teammates stayed glued to the perimeter and took 3s. In pick-and-roll, the Huskies will play two-on-two against Purdue point guard Braden Smith and Eddie, not tagging the reels and, again, staying tied to the shooters.

“Statistically, it's really hard to win games just by scoring two goals,” Clingan said.

On Monday night, the math giant and UConn won. Eddy had 37 points on 25 shots, but Purdue hit just one 3-pointer all night — and the Huskies finished off one of the most dominant runs in NCAA Tournament history with a 75-60 win.

This would have been impossible to accomplish without Clingan, college basketball's cheat code on the defensive end.

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

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“We watched the film,” UConn guard Tristen Newton said. “They get their 3-pointers from guys going down there and helping Eddie.”

Murray also looked at the numbers this weekend and noticed a trend in Purdue's efficiency numbers. Purdue's success wasn't really contingent on whether Eddie was “good, great, or excellent.” He always scores, finishing in double figures in every game this season. What matters is the production of starting guards Lance Jones, Fletcher Loyer and Smith along with sharpshooter Mason Gillis off the bench, especially what they did beyond the three-point line. The goal was to hold Eddie somewhere between 25 and 28 points, and keep those four under 20.

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

How that happened was because of what the UConn guards did as soon as Eddie touched him. They left their big man on an island, refusing to abandon their mission.

When Smith got a ball screen, the goal was to send him left and try to slide under screens, while Clingan would drop back and not allow Eddie to get behind him. If Eddie wins the race to the edge, it will require bringing in help. Purdue makes this really difficult, because the shooters get very high off the ground, forcing anyone who ends up with a long shutout.

Smith is as good as it gets on passes like this:

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

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The Huskies didn't manage to stop Smith from going right, but Clingan did so he didn't need any help from his teammates. That's amazing ability for a guy who's 7-foot-2 and 280 pounds. He shouldn't be able to move that big a block back this quickly, but that's why Clingan will be a lottery pick.

Clingan tried to play a cat-and-mouse game with Smith, pretending to be the one when his checked teammate tried to get back into the play. From watching film, he knew that Smith prefers to pass the ball when he gets up in the air, and the backup defender has no choice but to comply. Smith got Clingan one early:

Clingan has learned his lesson. The next time, he deliberately held back, hoping it would create some hesitation for Smith, and it worked perfectly:

That's what Clingan has done all year. Even when he's not in position, the fear of blocking shots intimidates his opponents. Even Eddie was a victim of this, missing three shots on the ledge he normally shot and traveling once when he kept trying to fake Klingan, who doesn't bite.

As is usually the case, the Huskies completely change their game plan when backup center Samson Johnson enters the game, something that is difficult for opponents to adjust to but smooth for UConn. With Johnson, the plan was to double team Eddie, fool Camden Hyde and then recover once the ball came back out. The first time Eddie saw it, he threw it at Hyde's head and Bordeaux was called back.

Smith made the right decisions, finishing the game with eight assists and just one turnover. He only had two reads; Either feed Eddie or try to record himself. He's been killing drop coverage this year with his pull-up jumper, but he only made 2-of-7 jumpers against the Huskies, who intentionally tried to wear him down with constant ball pressure from Stephon Castle and Hassan Diarra.

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“We played against athletes, we played against some really good defensive players this year and in the tournament, but not the group of defensive players like UConn has,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “We played against someone, they could have done it a Lock defender. These guys bring lockdown defenders off the bench.

The Huskies are relentless, defend as hard as they can every game and never miss a beat their coach displays. That's how they've made it through this tournament with the closest game being a 14-point win over Alabama. That's how they held Purdue to a 3-pointer for just the third time in Painter's 19 years at the school.

In case you're wondering, those other two games were losses as well, including the last time that happened: February 26, 2022, in a loss at Michigan State when the Boilers went 1-of-9 from 3. Eddie got his forfeit as well, scoring 25.

In three of Purdue's four losses before Monday night, the Boilers made five or fewer 3s.

Giving up 37 to Eddie? Many programs feared such a scenario. But the Huskies trusted numbers and Klingan.

“The math won out,” Murray said.

Just as they expected.

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

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