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Jordan Hawkins and many teammates are dancing for the first time
Four of the Huskies' top five scorers are playing in their first NCAA Tournament.
Even though this is UConn’s third straight NCAA Tournament, many key players will be making their first appearance in the Big Dance, including second-leading scorer Jordan Hawkins.
The sophomore guard missed the tournament last year due to a concussion and is looking forward to the postseason after improving his PPG from 5.8 to 15.9 in one year.
“I’m excited,” Hawkins said. “I didn’t get to play in it last year, so first NCAA Tournament. It’s gonna be fun. I always remembered it as a kid, so I can’t wait.”
The team is looking to bounce back after a disappointing loss against Marquette in the Big East semifinal. Hawkins struggled, finishing with just five points on 2-11 shooting. Despite that performance, Hawkins is embracing the scorer’s mentality.
“I’ve got to turn the page, and try to go 6-0, and put another banner up there,” he said.
He has plenty of reason to be confident. Since his eight-point performance at Marquette on Jan. 11, Hawkins has scored 19 or more points in nine of the last 14 games and hit double-digits in all but two.
The Maryland native turned in a 31-point and a 28-point performance in UConn losses and also scored exactly 20 points three games in a row during the Huskies’ season-ending win streak.
Freshman forward Alex Karaban is also playing in his first NCAA Tournament.
“It was super exciting,” Karaban said. “I was nervous…March Madness has always been a dream of mine, and this is my first time being able to play in it, so it was super exciting and nerve-wracking.”
The Massachusetts native acknowledged the opportunity to play relatively close to home.
“I think we have a great matchup in Iona who is a very tough team to play against… and to play in Albany is something special too.”
Karaban has been a driving force for UConn, averaging 9.7 points a game as a starter in his first year on the active roster. Against Marquette, Karaban recorded 10 points and 5 rebounds but dealt with foul trouble. In his absence, the Golden Eagles made a run late in the first half.
Like Hawkins, Karaban is eager to prove himself on the game’s biggest stage.
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“I’ve been watching March Madness all my life, so being able to partake in it is something that will mean everything to me,” Karaban said. “It’s a special tournament, the whole country, the whole world knows about it so we just want to leave an impact on it.”
Freshman center Donovan Clingan said he's been watching March Madness “as long as I can remember…To be able to play in it and get picked as the 4-seed, it just means a lot. It’s a dream come true.”
Multiple transfers new to the team this year will also be making their first NCAA Tournament appearance.
Tristen Newton and Joey Calcaterra are experienced college players, but they might be just as excited as their freshmen teammates. Newton, a senior guard who came to UConn from ECU, has helped the Huskies in a big way this season, averaging 10.2 points a game after averaging 17.7 for the Pirates, a team that hasn’t had a season above .500 since 2013 and has never been ranked in the AP Poll.
Calcaterra, a graduate student who transferred from the University of San Diego, shared his excitement about playing in his first Big Dance.
“Awesome first experience,” Calcaterra said. “Seeing all the boosters and supporters that we have around UConn men’s basketball was just great to see, and I think it’s just a reward for all of us for such a hard-working season. We earned this… We just wanna make the most out of this opportunity.”
Hawkins is also playing to boost his professional stock. The rangy shooter is a potential first-round pick in this year's NBA Draft.
“You always dream of this as a kid,” Hawkins said. “So it’s gonna be fun.”
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