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    Friday, May 24, 2024

    Spencer’s competitive spirit a great fit for UConn basketball program

    Cam Spencer, left, talks with former UConn coach Jim Calhoun on Saturday at UConn basketball open practice at Saint Joseph in West Hartford. (Gavin Keefe/The Day)
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    Donovan Clingan signs an autograph for a young fan on Saturday after the UConn basketball team's open practice at Jim A. Calhoun gymnasium at Saint Joseph in West Hartford. (Gavin Keefe/The Day)
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    Samson Johnson, left, talks with former UConn coach Jim Calhoun on Saturday at UConn basketball open practice at Saint Joseph in West Hartford. (Gavin Keefe/The Day)
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    Assistant coach Luke Murray gives instructions to the blue team during a timeout at Saturday's UConn basketball open practice at Saint Joseph in West Hartford. (Gavin Keefe/The Day)
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    West Hartford – Cam Spencer, a newcomer to the UConn basketball family, believes his competitive spirit is similar to coach Dan Hurley’s.

    “We’re fiery people,” Spencer said. “I love that about him.”

    It’s hard to match Hurley’s ultra competitive nature.

    But red-shirt sophomore Alex Karaban believes Spencer could challenge Hurley in that category.

    “I’d say so,” Karaban said. “If you see how he reacts during practice, I really think so.”

    One thing for sure, Spencer is a valuable addition to the defending national champion Huskies.

    Spencer showed off his variety of skills, especially his shooting prowess, during Saturday’s UConn basketball open practice for donors and season ticket holders at the University of Saint Joseph’s James A. Calhoun gymnasium in West Hartford.

    He was one of six newcomers playing for the first time before UConn fans.

    A graduate transfer, Spencer fills a huge hole in the perimeter shooting department left by the departure of NBA lottery pick Jordan Hawkins and Joey Calcaterra, two of the team’s top 3-point weapons last season.

    From a competitive standpoint, Spencer fits right in, according to Hurley.

    “He’s a great competitor,” Hurley said. “To play for me, you have to love the game as close to as much as I love it, or else the relationship is going to start to splinter. And he loves it as much as any of us love it. So, it’s a perfect fit.

    “From a skill-set, he fits perfectly with Tristen (Newton). He fits perfectly with culture and fits perfectly with how we play.”

    A 6-foot-4 guard, Spencer knew from the day of his official visit that he found a home in Storrs.

    “It was a no-brainer when I got on campus and met the coaches, saw practice and saw how they operated as a program,” Spencer said. “Everything matched and clicked right away. Coach Hurley and I are very similar in our competitive nature. … I’m excited to play for him.”

    Spencer, who played for former Husky Steve Pikiell at Rutgers before transferring in early June, wowed the crowd on a few occasions during the scrimmage portion of the practice. He scored from all over the court, knocking down 3-pointers, sinking mid-range jumpers and converting contested layups.

    While Spencer has the reputation as a lethal shooter, converting 43.4 percent from 3-point range last season, he believes he can do more than that.

    “I think I get labeled a shooter, which kind of plays to my advantage,” Spencer said. “Maybe people don’t expect that I can do other things. But I definitely pride myself on being able to pass and make plays for others. It is what it is. I just keep working hard.”

    The Huskies appeared to be blessed with the talent necessary to try to defend their national championship.

    The new big three of Karaban, Newton and Donovan Clingan are ready to lead the charge.

    Forward Samson Johnson, who was in the starting lineup for the season opener last year before a foot injury derailed his season, is poised for a breakout year. He was an active inside presence during the scrimmage, battling Clingan for rebounds and loose balls and blocking shots on the defensive end.

    Johnson can play power forward or be a valuable backup at center behind Clingan.

    “Samson is a whole new player,” Clingan said. “He’s been in the gym and put in the work, and it’s starting to show and pay off. He played great today and he’s been playing great every day in practice. I’m happy for him. … He’s going to play a big role for us this year.”

    McDonald’s All-American Stephon Castle, an athletic 6-6 point guard, showed flashes of his potential on Saturday and headlines a top five recruiting class.

    The biggest adjustment for the newcomers might be learning to play with the intensity that Hurley demands on a consistent basis.

    Hurley treated Saturday’s practice like any other, regularly barking instructions. He “cursed up a storm” and ended up apologizing to a few fans seated behind him.

    Overall, Hurley was pleased with his team’s effort.

    “It exhibited just how hard we’ve been working,” Hurley said. “These guys were able to play three 10 minute quarters. They looked like they were in shape. They were organized. … We have the potential to be a really good team.”

    The workout counted as one of 10 practices allowed by the NCAA prior to a team’s foreign trip.

    UConn will leave for a European tour on Wednesday, playing three games over nine days with stops in France, Monaco and Spain.

    The Huskies already have benefited from the extra practice time.

    “The trip has been big for us to stop the celebrating and to work hard,” Hurley said. “We’ve worked really hard this summer. Obviously, there are still things for us to do in terms of celebrating. But every time we’re not celebrating we’re grinding and we’re working super hard. This trip got us back to hard-ass practices.”

    News and notes

    Karaban returned earlier this week from participating in the Jayson Tatum Elite Camp in St. Louis. He called the experience “priceless.”

    “It was so much fun. That camp really boosted my confidence in the sense that I was playing against some of the other top wings in the country. I really just learned from Tatum, Bradley Beal, Paolo (Banchero), Chris Paul, they all taught me so much. That four day period was so invaluable.”

    Freshman Jaylin Stewart sat out the scrimmage, riding a stationary bike on the sidelines. He suffered a groin injury on Friday. He was the last player to arrive on campus, showing up in early July, due to his high school year in Seattle running into late June.

    “Not getting him out and graduating in time for the first summer session really worked against us,” Hurley said. “So he comes in late when we’re working at a very high rate and gets a soft tissue injury and he misses some valuable time.”

    After Saturday’s workout ended, the UConn players took turns stopping to say hello to Hall of Famer Jim Calhoun.

    Hurley received a standing ovation before addressing the crowd before practice. He also talked to them afterwards. “I thought the boys looked pretty good for July. We’re really far ahead of where a lot of people are,” he said to the fans.

    g.keefe@theday.com

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