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UConn making its mark amongst elite of men’s college basketball

UConn Cam Spencer - The Canadian Press

UConn paraded off the floor at NRG Stadium in Houston last April as an NCAA champion for the fifth time, effectively ending the discussion of where the Huskies stand amongst college basketball’s elite. 

For those keeping count, that’s three fewer titles than Kentucky and one fewer than North Carolina, but the same number as Duke and one more than Kansas – the four programs considered to be bluebloods in this day and age of men’s college basketball.

It might be time for an addition to that list.

“The blood is as blue as it could be,” claimed head coach Dan Hurley, in an interview with CBS immediately following that win last April over San Diego State.

For UConn, it was a fairy-tale cap to a season that was at one point in serious doubt. The team stumbled through a stretch of six losses in eight games against Big East opponents in December and January that left them outside of the preliminary bracket. But Hurley’s team recovered, winning eight of its last nine regular-season games to reach the NCAA Tournament as a No. 4 seed and never looking back.

The Huskies opened with a 24-point win over Iona, and cruised in similar fashion against Saint Mary’s, Arkansas, Gonzaga and Miami, before handling the Aztecs with relative ease in the final, winning 76-59. 

They won their six games by an average of 20 points – the fourth-highest average margin amongst champions since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985 – and became just the fourth team since the expansion to win each game by double figures.


UConn won’t fly under the radar this year like it did last year, or like it did in 2014, when it won a national championship under head coach Kevin Ollie as a No. 7 seed.

This time, they’re one of the favourites. Fresh off a record-setting run through the Big East, the Huskies are near-certain No. 1 seed when the bracket is released this Sunday.

UConn’s 74-60 win over Providence in Saturday’s finale was its 28th of the season – a new program record – and its 18th in 20 games against conference opponents, a new standard for the Big East.

It’s no small feat, with Marquette and Creighton likely to be top-three seeds in the NCAA Tournament, and Seton Hall, St. John’s, Villanova and Providence vying for spots of their own.

“This is a seven-bid league, [or] should be,” Hurley said. “Three potential Final Four teams, or even national championship contenders. So, to go 18-2 in a league like that…One through nine has been a brutal gauntlet to get through.”

UConn did it with the perfect balance of experience and youth, carried by one of the nation’s strongest backcourts, featuring a pair of All-Big East first teamers.

Tristen Newton, the nightly triple-double threat that led the Huskies in scoring in last April’s title game, was joined by sharpshooter Cam Spencer, who transferred from Rutgers last summer and finished second in the NCAA in three-point percentage this season. Newton was one of three players in all of college basketball to average at least 15 points, seven rebounds and five assists, and finished as the Huskies’ leading scorer, a shade ahead of Spencer.

Then there’s the freshman standout, Stephon Castle. Because what’s a blueblood school without a can’t miss, five-star prospect?

Castle burst into Hurley’s starting lineup right before Christmas and hasn’t relinquished that spot, earning Big East Freshman of the Week a record 11 times – surpassing Carmelo Anthony’s record of 10, which he set in 2003 while leading Syracuse to its only NCAA championship, and finishing with two more than Allen Iverson had in his first year at Georgetown nearly three decades ago.

Castle averaged 11.2 points per game, and was the lone unanimous selection for the Big East All-Freshman team.

“Just the way he plays for us as a freshman, [he’s] egoless,” Hurley said.

“He deserves consideration for Freshman of the Year because of what he’s done for his team nationally, not just a Big East thing. That goes without saying.”

Castle isn’t Hurley’s only blue-chip prospect. There’s Donovan Clingan, UConn’s 7-foot-2 giant who was instrumental in last year’s run, and with an increased role, is a likely first-round pick in June’s NBA Draft. Fellow sophomore Alex Karaban, already a starter on last year’s title team, was one of the NCAA’s most efficient scorers this year and is also gaining momentum as a pro prospect.

Simply put, one of the strongest programs in college basketball got stronger.

“We maintained a lot of our culture,” Hurley said. “Donovan [Clingan] didn’t start last year as a freshman, but he was one of the most impactful players in the country. Then you return Tristen Newton, who’s probably a first-team All-American, and you bring back Karaban, who’s probably one of the least-appreciated players in the country and is truly a great player. We were strategic in the portal…we knew exactly what we needed, and Cam Spencer was the perfect fit.

“The problem for people when they face us now, we’ve got that championship confidence that we bring onto the court on game night in every situation.”


UConn’s late addition to the list of college basketball’s elite can be attributed to a handful of factors, including this: The Huskies didn’t win their first national championship until 1999, at which point Kentucky, North Carolina, Duke and Kansas had already combined for 14. UCLA and Indiana, previously considered bluebloods and still esteemed as such in some circles, combined for 16 of their own before the Huskies captured their first.

The turnaround, and the ensuing ascent, was a long time in the making.

Jim Calhoun inherited the program in 1986 – at the time, fresh off a tying for last place in the Big East and seven years removed from its last appearance in the NCAA Tournament – and led the Huskies to an NIT title two years later, then transformed them into one of college basketball’s powerhouses over the following decade. In 2012, after three national championships, Calhoun retired, handing the reins to Ollie, who coached the Huskies until Hurley took over in 2018.

Five titles – in five appearances in the final, no less – under three separate head coaches. 

Hurley, who signed a six-year contract extension worth $32 million last July, is taking aim at something Calhoun and Ollie never accomplished, and something that hasn’t been done since Billy Donovan with Florida in 2007 – winning back-to-back national championships. That team, led by a trio of NBA lottery picks in Al Horford, Joakim Noah and Corey Brewer, is one of eight in NCAA history to repeat, and the lone one since Duke in 1992.

“We’re thinking history here,” Hurley said, following UConn’s win over Providence. “We’re thinking legacy for Tristen Newton, Donovan Clingan, Karaban…The two-year run these guys have been on is as good as any two-year run from a winning standpoint that anyone’s had in the history of the program.”

But first, there’s the Big East Tournament, which the Huskies last won in 2011 prior to a seven-year stint in the AAC between 2013-2020. Small stakes – albeit on a big stage at Madison Square Garden – for a team that dominated conference play this season and has goals that are much, much bigger.

Not that there won’t be challenges.

Creighton, which finished the regular season ranked eighth in the AP Poll, handed UConn one of its three losses – an 85-66 drubbing three weeks ago, just one day after the Huskies had laid a unanimous claim to the top ranking in the nation. Defending Big East champion Marquette will have its say in the matter as well, and is eager to avenge a pair of losses against UConn, both coming within the final month of the season.

Then it’s on to the big dance.

Hurley will have his team ready, whether it’s the Big East, a fellow blue blood – UConn beat North Carolina, but lost a tight game at Allen Fieldhouse in Kansas this season – or a pesky mid-major that’s eager to prove it can hang with college basketball’s elite, like the Huskies were under Calhoun during their own uprising.

“You get everyone’s best shot because you won the championship and you’re marked men,” he said.

So far this year, they’ve withstood the challenge.

“[Twenty-eight wins], we did that with the biggest target you can have on you.”