In Cam Spencer, UConn coach Dan Hurley found a kindred soul and standard-bearer

STORRS, Conn. — When Cam Spencer visited Connecticut last spring, he got the usual treatment. Photoshoot. Pitches on branding and NIL. The fluff, UConn coach Dan Hurley calls it.

Spencer goes out of his way to avoid what others seek. He’s not on social media. His interests are minimal. And Hurley could see Spencer and his family losing interest.

Then they started talking hoops. Style of play. How Spencer fit in UConn’s system.

“The group perked up,” Hurley says.

Hurley tells the story like a man who found his soulmate. Spencer is as close to his clone as anyone he’s ever coached. Spencer is the old man yelling to get off his lawn, and Hurley is across the street on his porch echoing obscenities. Hurley compares their anger meter to the strongman carnival game. “You hit it, and it goes all the way up,” he says. “It is in a way looking in the mirror.”

They’re unapologetically confident, and equally as obsessive. And once Hurley learned more about Spencer, it became clear that their upbringings were similar. “The accountability, the responsibility, the work ethic, the total desperation to be successful to win, to compete,” Hurley says. “The family, it emanates from them.”

Both Spencer and Hurley were the younger brother chasing their very successful older brother. We all know about Bobby Hurley, two-time national champion at Duke and Final Four MOP. Patrick Spencer, four years older than Cam, was the best college lacrosse player in the country at Loyola Maryland  — he won the Tewaaraton Award, lacrosse’s version of the Heisman Trophy — and then went to play basketball for a year at Northwestern. Now he’s in the NBA, recently signing a two-way contract with the Golden State Warriors. “He was always kicking my a–,” Cam says.

Cam had one scholarship offer out of high school, to Loyola. His long-shot past doesn’t necessarily drive him, but he wears it like a badge of honor. No one fights for success like he does. Earlier this season, he told an opposing player, “You don’t want this as much as me.”

In Hurley, Spencer found someone who craves to demoralize his opponent while chasing perfection. “Just the intensity level,” Spencer says. “Every little thing matters, because it does.”

Connecticut had been looking for someone to fill the Jordan Hawkins role, a sharpshooter whom Hurley could run off endless screens and stretch the defense with his gravity. Hurley pitched Spencer on the fact that if he’d come to the Huskies, they’d go from a preseason top-15 team to top five, with the potential to repeat as national champions. (He was close. They started preseason No. 6. “All good, Hurley says. “Unranked year before.”)

Everything else has come true. Through the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, the Huskies — who play San Diego State on Thursday night in Boston in a rematch of last year’s national title game — are the most dominant team again, winning by an average margin of 28. Spencer has checked the shooting box, making 2.6 treys per game at a 44 percent clip and averaging 14.4 points per game. He’s within range of the rare 50/40/90 shooting splits.

Spencer has also set the tone for the Huskies, through his intensity and his unselfishness. He has the highest offensive rating in college basketball, yet he has the fourth-highest usage rate in the starting lineup. The Huskies are more balanced than last season, with all five starters averaging double figures, which has led to a higher efficiency and higher assist rate. “We’re so unselfish, and the ball will find you,” Spencer says. “And if it doesn’t, then too bad; it’s not your night.”

Hurley has contemplated what UConn would be without Spencer. “Because I’m a negative guy,” he says. And he calls it “divine intervention from God” that Spencer landed in Storrs.

He knew Spencer fit his scheme. He could see the shooting and the passing, and he suspected Spencer was competitive.

“But what you don’t know,” Hurley says, “is if somebody’s going to shrivel up in big spots or be an absolute killer.”

It’s Jan. 10 at Xavier, and UConn is working on blowing a huge lead. The Musketeers are on a 9-0 run and about to cut it to three when Spencer sneaks from behind Lazar Djokovic and strips the ball before he can stick in a putback. Spencer then gets fouled, allowing Xavier to set up its press that just forced UConn into a turnover. A brief relief from the panic setting in. “We were hemorrhaging,” Hurley says.

The Huskies set their press breaker with 55.3 seconds on the clock, and Spencer stands near the top of the key with Xavier’s Quincy Olivari denying him on the ball side. Olivari is jumpy. Spencer’s teammates all start to move as soon as the official hands Hassan Diarra the ball, but Spencer stays put. He is one of those players gifted with the ability to slow the game down in real-time. The old man at the Y. No wasted movement. Everything done with a purpose. He waits until Olivari hops onto his top shoulder, then he releases into open space where Diarra can inbound him the ball. He beats the pressure with his patience, and the Huskies score a layup to ice the game.

“And we could all exhale,” Hurley says. “Sometimes he’ll do s— that’s really, really smart that we haven’t coached our guys to do.”

Cam Spencer has the nation’s best offensive rating (137.1) on KenPom. (Richard Deutsch / USA Today)

Spencer must be watched closely to be appreciated. That’s why he was missed by so many years ago.

The lack of college interest was frustrating. During his junior year of high school, he even created a recruiting profile for himself on the NCSA website. “My coach says a video will not do my game justice because of all the little things I do,” he wrote at the time. He knew he was good enough, because Patrick, who always held onto his own hoops dreams when he was starring in lacrosse, would take Cam to runs at the old Carmelo Anthony Center in Baltimore, where some of the best players in the area played. Darryl Morsell, Noah Locke and Josh Selby, to name a few.

“You see where you stack up,” Cam says, “and you’re like, ‘Yeah, I can I can definitely play with these guys.’”

After his junior year at Loyola, when he averaged 18.9 points and 3.2 assists, the bigger schools finally came calling. He transferred to Rutgers for the 2022-23 season and proved himself there, averaging 13.2 points and shooting 43.4 percent from deep. He entered the portal again, hoping to find a system that would make bring out his best attributes and get the NBA’s attention.

UConn provided the platform, and Spencer streamlined the learning curve this summer with his obsessive film study.

“It’s the most complicated system in the country, just the way we run offense, and how much we have to move,” Clingan says. “I was here last year, and I was lost for like two months. He picked it up quick.”

Spencer has always been a visual learner. He taught himself how to play Texas Hold’em during COVID-19 lockdown by watching hours of poker online. In high school, he decided he wanted to get good at golf and would study the swings of pros, then have his dad take videos of his swing, eventually learning to mimic the world’s best.

If he’s not on the court, he’s usually in front of a screen. He watches all of his brothers’ games — his younger brother, Will, plays Division III ball at Hood College in Maryland — and he watches every second of UConn’s practices and games. Usually immediately after. “On road trips, I can’t even get my book bag open,” video coordinator Mathew Johnson says. “He’s asking, ‘Hey, can I watch film on the practice laptop or can we get it uploaded before we take off?’”

Spencer also studies video of future opponents like a coach. During film study ahead of a game, Johnson always hands out paper scouting reports to the players and then collects them afterward. He’s always one short, because Spencer will sneak away with a copy.

“He absorbs a lot,” Hurley says. “If he’s not playing it, he’s watching it. If he’s not watching it, he’s thinking about it. His basketball brain is able to handle and pick up the concepts.”

Spencer follows his routine religiously. He’s the first to the floor for every practice and game, starting with the same dribbling and then shooting regimen. Immediately after, he heads to the cold tub. Sometimes he’ll multitask, standing in the ice bath as he watches film on a laptop.

Last month after returning from a Valentine’s Day win at DePaul, the Huskies got back to the facility around 4:30 a.m. Everyone headed to their cars to go home, but Clingan realized he’d left his keys in his locker. He passed Spencer on the way, headed to the training room. He was headed to the cold tub.

“What’s wrong with you?” Clingan asked.

“I can’t sleep. I’d go play another game right now.”

“It’s 4:30 in the morning!”

“I got all the energy in the world.”

A few weeks ago Bruce Spencer came across a poll on social media. “Most punchable Big East face,” a St. John’s fan asked. He gave three options: Cam Spencer, Cam Spencer, Cam Spencer.

Bruce sent it to friends and family. “I think it’s hilarious,” his dad says.

“I wish people knew the real Cam,” says his mom, Donna.

The Spencers figured out quickly something inside of their middle child was triggered when he had a ball in his hands or stepped foot on a court or field.

When did it start?

“When he was 3,” Bruce says.

The family got a pop-a-shot in their basement, and Cam would spend hours throwing shots in over his head, like a soccer throw-in. He was so good that neighbors would come to watch.

“He was locked in, and he was gonna make those shots,” Bruce says, “because that’s what Patrick was doing.”

Like Hurley, this was the motivation. The dog chasing the rabbit.

Cam says he learned from studying his father, whom he’d often go to watch play pickup basketball every Thursday. Bruce has played with the same group of guys for years — at 57, he’s still playing — and anytime he lost, Cam would see that it would ruin his day.

Once after Cam’s team lost a first-grade basketball game, no one could find him afterward. He’d gone from the handshake line straight to the parking lot. “He rolled,” Bruce says. “He was torqued.”

Every year the Spencers go to the Naval Academy gym on Thanksgiving morning to play basketball with family friends. One of Bruce’s best friends has keys to the gym because the court is named after his father. The tradition is they play pickup. All ages. Young kids. Dads. For fairness reasons, Cam and Patrick are on opposite teams.

“The morning starts off great,” Patrick says. “We’re all happy to go. We can’t wait to play.”

“It would literally end up in a fight almost every year,” Cam says. “We’d end up fighting and my dad would end the game.”

The car ride to the Thanksgiving meal was quiet, outside of Donna pleading with her boys not to embarrass the family at their next destination.

“When we compete against each other, we’re literally ready to kill each other,” Patrick says. “But aside from that, we’re each other’s biggest fans.”

On Patrick’s 21st birthday — he was born on the Fourth of July — the family visited their grandparents’ condo in Ocean City, Maryland. They decided to play tennis with their grandparents. Cam was with Grandpa and Patrick with Grandma. Cam and his grandpa strategically kept placing the ball toward Grandma’s backhand because it was a “little weak.” Patrick was agitated, and then he finally got a ball hit his direction. He put it in the net, and then slammed his racket against his head and gashed his forehead. The game ended because he needed to go to the hospital to get stitches.

“But we won, my grandpa and I,” Cam says. “He forfeited. We won.”

“I think that edge is what makes us who we are,” Patrick says. “You take that away, I think we’re a different person. I promise we’re not like that always, but when we compete, all bets are off.”

The Huskies saw it in the ceremonial kickoff to the season — their version of Midnight Madness that they call First Night — during a 3-point contest pairing Spencer and Caroline Ducharme against Alex Karaban and Azzi Fudd. Spencer and Ducharme lost. Spencer, seething, stayed after to shoot.

“He didn’t talk to anybody after,” student manager Nate Herman says. “It was like the end of the world for him.”

Spencer is so hard on himself that Hurley has had to try to calm him down some this season.

“He tends to go on some tirades when he misses a shot,” Hurley says. “He’s such a perfectionist, such a competitor. You just want to avoid him getting in his own head and him getting in his own way.”

Of course, Hurley kind of loves it too. The standard he holds for his Huskies at every single moment of every practice and every game is why they never seem to let up, and Spencer has become his echo. They can be up 20 and have a bad possession or two, and “Cam’s yelling at us,” Clingan says, “like this is bulls—. Step our s— up. I don’t care who we’re playing. We got to play to our level.”

At DePaul, when Clingan was a step behind his man rolling to the basket, he left his feet on a pump fake and picked up his second foul with 10:42 left in the first half. When he got to the bench, Spencer was waiting.

“He just started yelling at me,” Clingan says. “Yo, who gives a s— if they score those two points? It’s two points versus 10 minutes. Now you have to sit on the bench for 10 minutes. He yelled for like three straight minutes about how I can’t get in foul trouble because how much they need me on the court. It’s things like that that help me. It helps me realize I need to focus on not fouling.”

Clingan hasn’t had more than three fouls in a game since.

His teammates don’t mind because they know Spencer holds himself to an even higher standard.  On the eve of UConn’s first game against Marquette, he missed a defensive assignment during practice. He was supposed to tag the roller in a pick-and-roll, and right after the ball hit the ground from an alley-oop dunk, Spencer was standing in the middle of the lane and owning his mistake.

“That’s me. That’s me,” he said to his coaches and teammates.

And then, he let himself know how he felt about such a mistake. “F—! F—! F—!”

“That part I wish I could change,” his mom says of the vulgarity. “I really do. I wish I could change that.”

“I don’t care,” Bruce says. “You look at what our our sons are trying to do, and you know what it takes to get there, why would you take any fuel off that fire? Because you need every ounce you can get, so why would you stifle that? Because you’re worried about what somebody else thinks? Frankly, we don’t really care what anybody else thinks and neither does Cam. I love it.”

The Huskies do too. Because the most vulgar Cam is the trash-talking Cam, and they’ve seen opponents come unraveled as they start to worry about what Spencer is saying instead of the game. “He triggers people,” UConn assistant Tom Moore says.

Spencer, meanwhile, plays better where others crumble. He loves road games. Loud arenas. Those pressure-packed moments. “I think it shows the true competitor in you,” he says.

He never plans what he’s going to say to opponents. It just happens.

Everything else he’s prepared for, which is one reason why Hurley is so confident as his team heads to the second weekend of this NCAA Tournament. “We’re bulletproof,” he said last weekend.

His shield is Spencer, dissecting defenses, hitting clutch shots and letting everyone hear about it.

(Top photo: Sarah Stier / Getty Images)