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Donovan Clingan at full strength makes the UConn defense elite

After two injuries slowed his early-season progress, the big man now appears to be in prime form.

On Jan. 5, UConn men’s basketball escaped Indianapolis with a victory after allowing 81 points to Thad Matta’s Butler team. It was a low point for the UConn defense, but hardly a surprise for head coach Dan Hurley.

“We’ve been just super soft, like wet tissue, guarding dribble drive,” Hurley said a few days earlier. “Our defense has got to take a major step up from here or else we will not be contenders at anything.”

A week later, the Husky defense was sitting 41st in the KenPom efficiency rankings, a 29-spot drop from where it had opened the season.

However the Husky defense has been surging since that point, and it’s no coincidence that it’s occurring after Donovan Clingan returned to the court and recovered from an injury-riddled start to the season.

In UConn’s most recent win over Villanova, the Huskies just held Villanova to their worst eFG% of the season. Until the recent loss at Creighton, UConn hadn’t allowed an opposing team to score more than 67 points. The Huskies’ defense had moved up to as high as the 11th most efficient in the country.

A preseason foot injury slowed Clingan down at the beginning of the season, even though he played, and another injury in December forced him out for five games.

Now that he’s back, opponents are reckoning with the terror Clingan puts on their shooters.

“His ability to protect the rim is elite,” Creighton head coach Greg McDermott said on Jan. 17. “It’s not just the ones he blocks, it’s the ones you don’t take because he’s there.”

In a road win over Villanova, Hurley said he was planning to play Clingan for 20 minutes but kept him in slightly longer due to the tight game.

“We probably resemble more of a Top-5 defense, Top-10 defense at worse, when Cling Kong is in there,” Hurley said.

“It’s so much easier on defense because you know if you missed something or have a back door cut, you have a giant who’s going to block it,” sophomore forward Alex Karaban said.

After a month back, Clingan is making strides toward 100 percent health, just in time for #MARCH.

He blocked 14 shots across a recent four-game stretch and posted his first double-double of the season on Feb. 7 against Butler (18 points, 11 rebounds). He’s scored 10 or more points in four of five games since.

“The single biggest thing was just Donovan finally got four or five practices to get himself into a rhythm with cardio, players getting used to him,” Hurley said after the Jan. 28 beatdown of Xavier. “He's got no issues with his foot, his weight is back to around where it was last year, or lighter, so you can see the mobility.”

The Clingan Effect

Clingan’s defensive impact can’t be fully understood by just looking at box scores, though he does rank fourth in the Big East in blocks, and the advanced stats show that opponents take worse shots and miss more shots when he’s on the court.

On tape, his impact is also quite apparent.

The Clingan Effect was on full display when reigning Big East Player of the Year Tyler Kolek and the Marquette Golden Eagles traveled to Hartford earlier this month.

Early in the first half, Kolek and Oso Ighodaro are running one of Marquette’s most common actions. Clingan’s size and length are simultaneously taking away the shot and the pass on this pick-and-roll. The All-American is lost, can’t make a play, and is lucky to get the ball back.

A few minutes later now. Check out Kolek’s shooting angle as he labors to try to get it over Clingan’s outstretched arm. That’s a nearly impossible shot.

In the second half, this possession starts with David Joplin forced to pass out due to Clingan lurking. Then Kolek tries the lob over Clingan’s head. Easier said than done.

In this one, Marquette is down big and trying to play fast. Again Clingan’s positioning forces Kolek to make a late impossible pass. This is how being impactful doesn’t show up in the box score.

“Clingan really really bothered us,” Marquette coach Shaka Smart said. “Even more so than he had in the past. So hats off to them for the way they defended.”

And lest you think it was a one-game phenomenon, here are some highlights of Clingan anchoring the paint and forcing missed shots against Villanova this past weekend.

Husky Dominance

The Huskies held that potent Marquette offense to just 36.8 percent shooting from the floor, Marquette’s lowest mark in over a month. But MU is hardly alone.

UConn’s defense ranks 12th in the country in opponent shooting percentage, ninth in scoring, and seventh in opponent two-point percentage.

The last stat may be the most impressive. In the entire country, only three Power Six schools rank better than the Huskies at forcing misses on two-point shots. Pair that with ranking 15th in the country in Block % and the picture is clear: playing in the paint against UConn is a dangerous idea.

That is the Donovan Clingan Effect.

Using Hoop Explorer’s On/Off function, we can see the differences between UConn’s performance with Donovan Clingan on the floor versus without:

With Clingan on the floor, the Huskies allow 4.4 fewer points per 100 possessions, hold defenses to two percent worse shooting, and allow nearly 10 percent fewer layups and dunks. When opponents do attempt those layups, the Huskies rank as the No. 1 team in the country at forcing misses at the rim with Clingan on the floor. They rank just 16th without him.

Overall, per Hoop Explorer, with Donovan Clingan UConn rates out as the third best defense in the country. Without him, they’re around 15th.

Rolling into March

Dan Hurley is no stranger to building elite defenses during his six-year tenure at UConn. The difference lately is that he’s paired his tough defensive mindset with a flowing, intricate offensive attack that analysts view as one of the most sophisticated in the country.

A conversation about UConn’s defensive excellence would also be incomplete without mentioning Stephon Castle’s impact on the perimeter. He also started the season with an injury and is a freshman. But the five-star recruit has elite credentials and it has shown across this season. Defensively, he’s been tasked with guarding some of the best players in the Big East. He and Clingnan, plus the coaching emphasis placed on this side of the ball, have led UConn to excellence on that front.

Both Clingan and Castle are likely to be on NBA rosters next season. Their time together has been a massive boost to Hurley’s vision and a reason why the team is poised to have another postseason to remember in 2024.

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