Tristen Newton's winding path to UConn stardom

Newton has always had "it" but didn't always have the opportunities to prove himself.

In a sold-out Gampel Pavilion, amid a blowout victory winding down on Saturday night, the fans and players still had a reason to stay focused in the waning seconds of UConn’s 78-54 drubbing of Villanova.

In what could have been the Huskies’ final offensive possession, all eyes were on Tristen Newton, who had 10 points, 16 rebounds, and nine assists. One more dime and the kid from El Paso would have his second triple-double of the season, adding a fourth to his Husky program record.

His teammates knew, as demonstrated by the way they engineered his final assist. His coach knew it, too, as he admitted after the game.

Ever the trusting teammate, Newton found Alex Karaban, the slumping sophomore who had not made a field goal all night. Karaban released a deep three and it was just too perfect. The shot hit nothing but net, adding an exclamation point to the rivalry-game victory.

“I yelled as loud as I could, 'Pass it!' But he knew the situation he was in,” his coach, Dan Hurley, reflected after the game.

Nearing the end of his second season in Storrs, it’s a bit of a strange place for Newton to be in, running point for the team ranked No. 1 in the country for six weeks. During his first season with UConn, fans and analysts had doubts about his ability to be a major contributor.

Before that, he’s always had doubters. The recruiting sites 247Sports and Rivals didn’t even have a rating on him coming out of the Class of 2019.

Despite having great size and talent, the guard from west Texas did not have the attention of high-major colleges. His coach at Burges High School, Paul Gutierrez, notes that athletes from that area are often overlooked.

“Being out here in El Paso, it’s very hard to get a lot of college coaches to really believe in the athletic ability of a player,” he said. “But he was confident in his skills and his ability and he didn’t waiver [from] what he wanted.”

What he wanted was to stay in Texas and play for the best program possible. But the powers of the Big 12 were not interested.

Newton comes from a family of athletes. His brother Jawaun hooped at Evansville and Southern Illinois, and his cousins Aaron Jones (Packers running back, who also played basketball at UTEP) and Alvin Jones (former Ravens linebacker) both have NFL experience. He also has the size; at 6’5 he’s taller than most college point guards.

Whenever he got the chance to face elite competition, Newton met the challenge.

“We tried to schedule games versus high-level competition,” Gutierrez said. “He played against [Jarrett] Culver. His sophomore year we played his team in the second round of the playoffs and Tristen went off for 51 points.”

Still, the bluebloods didn’t come calling. He committed to East Carolina and then-coach Joe Dooley. He rewarded that faith by scoring 20 points in his first college game and averaging 11.0 points per game as a freshman.

“The thing that I thought was most intriguing about him is there was so much upside,” Dooley said. “He was so young. He needed strength, but he still had the ability to score, still had the ability to do some things that you can’t teach.”

Photo: ECU Athletics

Newton and UConn’s American Athletic Conference days only overlapped by one season, so Husky fans would be forgiven for not remembering him suiting up in the old gold and royal purple.

Hurley remembers. In one game against the Huskies, an 84-63 UConn win on February 29, 2020, a freshman Newton scored 25 points on 9-17 shooting, handed out six assists, and grabbed five rebounds.

The UConn head coach filed that away, and when Newton hit the transfer portal after the 2021-22 season, where he averaged 17.7 points and 5.0 assists per game, Hurley was one of many power conference coaches to call.

The heavy hitters called Gutierrez as well, looking for a character reference on the point guard who lit up the AAC. He recalls TCU and Clemson coming at Newton hard.

“I think a lot of schools noticed ‘This is the guy. This is our closer. When the game is tight or when we need a bucket, this is the guy that can do it for us,’” he said. “A lot of schools needed a point guard like that.”

Newton ultimately chose the Huskies, stepping up a weight class to the Big East, and venturing even further from home to chase his dreams.

UConn fans know what happened next, but it wasn’t as simple as him waltzing onto campus and leading the Huskies to their fifth national championship.

It started well. UConn came out of the gate hot in 2022-23, winning the Phil Knight Invitational in Oregon en route to a 14-0 start, and Newton shined. He notched the first triple-double of his UConn career in his third game, notching 22 points (14-17 FT), 10 rebounds, 11 assists, and four steals against Buffalo. As the Huskies hit the top five in the national polls, Newton didn’t slow down.

Until the team did.

UConn’s 2-6 January stretch is now legendary — the rough patch the team endured on its way to March dominance. Newton’s production plummeted, as he scored a combined 12 points in the first two losses at Xavier and Providence. He did have 12 assists in those games, but he combined for four over the next three games. The turnovers began to mount as well.

Through January, UConn stayed ranked and in the top 10 in most major prediction-based metrics. But the talking heads saw one major weakness on the roster: the lack of a true point guard.

“As a coach, you want that extension of your point guard to be just like the coach on the court,” Gutierrez said. “The thing is, Tristen is so smart. Just because he wasn’t the quintessential point guard doesn’t mean he’s not [UConn’s] point guard. He made the right plays. He made the right passes, and I think as a point guard, that’s what you’re asked: put everybody in a position where they can succeed.”

It wasn’t just on Newton, many UConn players had to tighten their game. And they did just that, ending the regular season with five straight wins, posting a dominant win over Providence in MSG, and becoming a juggernaut again in the NCAA Tournament.

While Adama Sanogo was named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player, a reasonable case could have been made for their point guard, even if his numbers weren’t quite as sexy.

He scored 19 in the title game, and seven in the semifinals against Miami with eight assists in a game where Andre Jackson was sidelined early with foul trouble. Newton was the calming presence UConn needed in Houston.

In both games, the Huskies raced out to a big lead and had to withstand a second-half comeback. Newton was the guy who got a bucket when the team needed it. He was also 10-10 from the free throw line in the Final Four.

His cousins were front and center as he sunk all eight of his attempts from the line in the second half of the title game and earned all-tournament team honors.

“To be able to be there and go through that with him and let him know how proud I was of him, that means a lot,” Aaron Jones said last year on the Fast Break Pod, adding that it was especially sweet coming in the Lone Sar State.

“No Texas schools offered him out of high school, so to come back to Texas and win it in Texas…it was big.”

Photo: Ian Bethune

Hurley has shared that Newton was eager for more of a leading role last season. After participating in last year’s NBA Combine, he decided to remove his name from draft consideration and return to UConn. Now, without Sanogo, Jackson, or Jordan Hawkins on the roster, Newton is seizing the opportunity and improving his pro prospects.

In a lot of ways, 2023-24 has mirrored 2022-23 for Newton, with slightly better results (no January losing streak) and more of a leadership role. His per-game numbers are up across the board, though his free-throw shooting and three-point shooting are a little worse. He’s been better from two, however, and his turnover percentage is down while his assist rate is up.

Like last year, Newton has had his slumps. But when the team struggles, Newton has been there to pick up the slack. He’s great at getting to the free-throw line and staying cool under pressure.

The Huskies have the third-most efficient offense in the country, per KenPom, which has Newton ranked as the top player in the Big East. In three losses, the UConn offense has been stagnant, averaging 0.947 points per possession. But particularly against Kansas and Creighton, two road battles against top-15 teams, Newton showed an ability to keep UConn in games.

He scored 31 and hit six threes against the Jayhawks, including several with the shot clock running down as UConn couldn’t run its offense against a stifling Kansas defense. He also scored 25 in a close road win at Villanova and finished with 27 at Creighton.

Dooley, his coach at ECU, is now on staff at Kansas, so he had a front-row seat to the show his former player put on in Lawrence.

“I think he does have a gear when he knows that [UConn needs] certain things that he could take over,” Dooley said. “He did always have a knack for being able to create at the last second… he’s a tough shot taker sometimes and he’s a tough shot maker.”

With a maximum of six weeks left in the season, there isn’t much more time for Newton to make a case to pro scouts. Hurley feels he’s already done plenty.

"He's got great size and great instincts for basketball," Hurley said. "It's a gift, a feel. He understands sports. It's a great awareness for tracing the basketball and reacting before other players. There's a lot more buzz with NBA front offices than maybe you see with some of these [BS] mock drafts that come out."

Gutierrez also has high expectations for his former player this March, and beyond.

“It’s that level of confidence that Tristen has in himself and I don’t think that’s going to waiver,” he said. “This guy is a player. This guy is a dude. This guy is gonna get things done.”

Photo: Ian Bethune

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