Is UConn a blue blood? ‘We’ve got five nattys in the last 25 years, man’

  • Jeff Borzello, ESPN Staff WriterDec 5, 2023, 09:12 AM ET


    • Basketball recruiting insider.
    • Joined ESPN in 2014.
    • Graduate of University of Delaware.

SHORTLY AFTER UCONN beat Texas in the title game of the Empire Classic last month, coach Dan Hurley entered the Madison Square Garden press room flanked by forwards Alex Karaban and Samson Johnson. While the players were answering questions, Hurley’s gaze was fixed on a television on the far wall showing Kansas in the Maui Invitational.

“I just wanted to see what was going on,” he joked to ESPN afterward.

Now UConn had a five-day stretch in which it’s face two traditional basketball powerhouses.

Blue bloods.

Where five-stars go to play: Kansas, Duke, North Carolina and Kentucky. Maybe UCLA and Indiana.

No. 5 UConn lost to No. 2 Kansas 69-65 last week and beat No. 9 North Carolina 87-76 on Tuesday in the Jimmy V Classic. Hurley understood the importance of those two games for the Huskies as a program.

When Hurley arrived in Storrs in 2018, UConn’s reputation had taken a significant hit — and its nonconference schedule was evidence of the drop-off. Tournament organizers and multiple-team event directors were lukewarm on UConn. Now Hurley knows playing the historical elite is a sign the program has again reached the upper echelon of college basketball.

“We wanted these types of games. … Play high-reward type of games and see how you measure up against the best teams,” Hurley said that night at MSG. “You got to earn your way into nights like that.”

As soon as the clock hit triple zero and confetti began falling on the raised arms of the UConn players in NRG Stadium last April, the discussion surrounding the Huskies’ inclusion among the blue-blood programs of college basketball began.

Or ended, depending on your viewpoint.

“We’re not about the clicks and the social media and the bulls—. It’s old school. We’ve got an old-school type of program.”

Dan Hurley

By any objective measure, five national championships in a quarter century gets you into the conversation among the 1% of the programs in the sport.

“This is No. 5,” former UConn star Emeka Okafor told ESPN that night in Houston. “We have one in every decade for the past four decades. … I don’t know how you would deny a school who has the most championships in the past 25 years. This will definitely end the debate, if there was any.”

Whether the Huskies beat North Carolina in New York on Tuesday won’t have a big-picture effect on UConn’s case for being a blue blood — and for Hurley, it matters little.

Hurley is fine being viewed differently.

“I just think there’s something about Storrs, Connecticut, and the history of the program and the type of people that get attracted to Storrs, Connecticut,” he said. “We get talented players, but they’re hard-playing guys. We’re not about the clicks and the social media and the bulls—. It’s old school. We’ve got an old-school type of program.”

Hurley also sees a different classification.

“Blue blood? We’ve got five nattys in the last 25 years, man. Eleven on the women’s side. We don’t have to be a blue blood, we’ll just be the basketball capital of the world in college.”

WHEN JIM CALHOUN attended his first Big East coaches meeting in 1986, it was at a table filled with college basketball luminaries.

Guys who go by one name. Rollie, Louie, Big John, P.J., Boeheim. Rick Pitino had just arrived at Providence a year earlier. Incredibly, three teams from the league were in the 1985 Final Four.

And then there was UConn, coming off four straight sub-.500 campaigns and a program without an NCAA tournament appearance since it became one of the founding schools of the Big East in 1979.

Five national championships in 25 years? Calhoun wanted to get out of the 8-9 play-in game of the Big East tournament.

“We just wanted to get good in the Big East,” he said.

Early on, UConn wasn’t able to recruit in typical Big East strongholds. Villanova owned Philly and recruited New Jersey. St. John’s and Syracuse were battling in New York City. Georgetown had the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia corridor. The best players from the state of Connecticut were going elsewhere.

Instead of getting the second- and third-choice targets of its rivals, UConn decided to go national — and sell the conference instead of the school.

“We had to do it a different way,” Calhoun said. “I used the Big East as much as anything else. Play in Madison Square Garden, play against the best programs and players. The whole idea was to go all over the country. You want to play in that league? How about you come play for us and beat them.”

“[Jim Calhoun] was a great developer of players. He got players that were a little under the radar and made them into better players.”

Jim Boeheim

Jim Boeheim had a front-row seat for UConn’s emergence as a college basketball power. As Syracuse’s coach for Calhoun’s entire tenure — and before and after Calhoun’s time in Storrs — the Hall of Famer saw the state of the Huskies’ program in the early 1980s as well as the five national championships.

“They sold out the Hartford Civic Center when they were losing,” Boeheim told ESPN. “Bill Guthridge once told me the No. 1 thing you have to have to build a program is a fan base. No. 1. And they had that. And [Calhoun] saw that. And he energized it. He was a great developer of players. He got players that were a little under the radar and made them into better players.”

From 1986 on, it would be hard to find a more successful program than UConn. The Huskies made it to the Sweet 16 or further in the NCAA tournament seven times between 1990 and 1999, falling one game short of the Final Four on three separate occasions.

Tom Moore, who was an assistant coach under Calhoun from 1994 to 2007 and then rejoined the program under Hurley in 2018, felt that momentum when he arrived back on campus.

“All the heavy lifting had been done. It was humming,” Moore said. “Coach Calhoun was in the prime of his career, he wasn’t going anywhere. It was only a matter of time before we broke through.”

Calhoun and UConn capped off an incredible rise with a national championship win over Duke in 1999 … and another title in 2004 … and another in 2011. The Huskies became a staple in the national conversation, ranking in the top 10 in the AP poll in 17 of 21 seasons between 1990 and 2011, producing 15 first-round NBA draft picks during that stretch.

The program then entered a period of uncertainty following Calhoun’s retirement in 2012. Kevin Ollie, who played under Calhoun and was an assistant from 2010 to ’12, was tabbed as his replacement — first on an interim basis and then permanently a few months later. But UConn also left the Big East for the American Athletic Conference in 2013. Ollie, in 2014, guided the 7-seed Huskies to a national championship.

After missing the NCAA tournament in three of four seasons, including back-to-back sub-.500 campaigns in 2017 and 2018, UConn parted ways with Ollie and hired Hurley away from Rhode Island.

If the goal was to get a modern-day version of Calhoun, it was hard to get closer than Hurley.

“I don’t know if I’ve met anyone with more competitive fire [than Calhoun] — maybe until I met Dan,” Moore said. “They’re similar in terms of their level of focus, the focus on their team, on their program, their level of competitiveness.”

UConn returned to the Big East in 2020 — with that the Huskies also were returning to their Calhoun roots under Hurley: Being tough, gritty and blue collar.

“Danny was born with a chip on his shoulder,” Calhoun said. “All he had to do was beat out a Hall of Fame father and an All-American brother. I think it carries over. Danny and I are not alike in everything, but we’re both very emotional and passionate guys.”

UConn’s ascension to the summit of the sport was again completed last spring, when the Huskies dominated their way through the NCAA tournament and captured another national championship.

“I know there were enough guys that turned this job down because of, ‘How are you going to be good at UConn?'” Calhoun said. “Obviously, we turned out pretty good.”

THE CONSENSUS IS Kansas, North Carolina, Kentucky and Duke are the true blue bloods. They’re the four winningest programs in college basketball history, regularly producing NBA players and entering each season with Final Four expectations. The histories of UCLA and Indiana are steeped in national championships and Final Four appearances, but lack of recent success means they don’t make everyone’s list.

How does UConn stack up? For a quantitative perspective, ESPN took eight different programs — Kansas, UNC, Kentucky, Duke, UCLA, Indiana, UConn and Villanova (which was inching toward this conversation under Jay Wright) — and looked at the past 25 seasons in six different categories: overall record, regular-season conference championships, NCAA tournament appearances, Sweet 16 appearances, Final Four appearances and national championships.

Then we ranked the eight schools in each of the six categories, awarding eight points to the program at the top of each category and decreasing the points until we gave one point to the program at the bottom. Here is the pecking order for the past quarter century:

1. Kansas: 42 points

2. Duke: 41 points

3. North Carolina: 37 points

4. Kentucky: 32 points

5. UConn: 25 points

6. Villanova: 24 points

7. UCLA: 20 points

8. Indiana: 6 points

UConn is right outside the big four. But if the blue-blood group fluctuates enough to move UCLA and Indiana to the outside looking in, is UConn the new member?

The Huskies have the strongest case of anyone.

Boeheim doesn’t think a case needs to be made.

“100%. There’s no debate.” Boeheim said. “It’s [based on] record, not what you perceive. It’s what you do. And they’ve done it on the court.”

Longtime adversaries on the court, Boeheim and Calhoun see eye to eye on the matter.

“For winning championships in the last quarter century, we’re the best at it,” Calhoun said.

“We don’t have this 100-year history, but we’ve outperformed — if the measuring stick is national championships — every blue blood in the last 25 years,” Moore added.

UConn’s case rests on titles. And over the past 25 seasons, the Huskies have the most national championships in the sport and are tied for the most Final Four appearances. Additionally, UConn had this success under three different head coaches.

“If that is the term predominantly used to identify the best basketball programs in the country over a period of time, then I don’t know how you don’t include UConn,” UConn athletic director David Benedict said. “It’s happened with three different coaches. So it’s not just about one person. It’s about a lot of good coaches and a really good program. … How we’ve gone about it is different than every other school.”

“They’re in Storrs, Connecticut. I’m not going to get them mad at me; I’m sure it’s a nice place. But to win three national championships, in that situation. It’s a great accomplishment to win at Kentucky or Duke or Kansas; it’s a lot different winning in Storrs, Connecticut.”

Jim Boeheim

“I don’t think there’s any doubt,” Big East commissioner Val Ackerman said. “The challenge is staying in there, staying up there. I think that’s really the test of the program and the strength of the culture that’s been built here. Can you sustain that success when the icons step away?”

The argument against UConn’s status as a blue blood centers around its lack of history before Calhoun and the years in between the national championships.

Calhoun pushes back on both.

“We’ve lasted. We’ve had a couple of lulls, but we’re not the only ones,” Calhoun said. “For the kids, ancient history might be 10 years — or last year’s champions.”

Since he retired in 2012, however, the Huskies have missed the NCAA tournament more than they’ve appeared in it. They went four seasons without a tournament appearance at the end of Ollie’s stint and the beginning of Hurley’s. UConn didn’t get out of the first weekend of the tournament, nor was it ranked inside the AP top 10 at any point between the 2014 and 2023 seasons — seasons in which the Huskies won a national championship. The school has just four regular-season conference championships in the past 25 years and hasn’t won one since 2006.

“It’s a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business,” Moore said. “When you have one, two, three consecutive bad years, people forget quick. You have to be front and center, year in and year out, if you want to maintain that elite status.”

And that’s going to be the biggest key for UConn as a program moving forward. Sustaining the success on a yearly basis, consistently being ranked near the top of the sport and winning games every March like it did under Calhoun. Competing for five-star recruits, competing for Big East championships.

“We’re going to be able to continue to ride the Coach Hurley wave here,” Benedict said. “All the things are in place to continue to build on the legacy that Coach Calhoun built. And he won three of them. And hopefully Dan will be able to challenge that accomplishment.”

From Boeheim’s perspective, UConn just being in this conversation is an accomplishment — the lack of history makes it even more impressive. Winning titles and going to Final Fours is part of the decades-old fabric at the other blue bloods.

“He’s almost never listed as one of the great program-builders. But he’s probably No. 1. He did this at Connecticut,” Boeheim said of Calhoun. “They weren’t that far removed from the Yankee Conference. They were at the bottom of the Big East. They’re in Storrs, Connecticut. I’m not going to get them mad at me; I’m sure it’s a nice place. But to win three national championships, in that situation. It’s a great accomplishment to win at Kentucky or Duke or Kansas; it’s a lot different winning in Storrs, Connecticut. I don’t think he gets enough credit.”

The recruiting and having players selected in the NBA draft are trending in the right direction. The Huskies had a top-five recruiting class in 2023, signing a group that included five-star recruit Stephon Castle. They had a lottery pick in the 2024 NBA draft in Jordan Hawkins, and Andre Jackson was picked in the second round.

Even though they lost out on national No. 1 recruit Cooper Flagg to Duke, two more ESPN 100 prospects are headed to Storrs next fall. Castle and Donovan Clingan are projected lottery picks in the 2024 NBA draft.

And for Hurley’s part, he has been pushing a no-complacency narrative since the Huskies left Houston with their newly printed T-shirts and caps.

“When you win a national championship, you know your way works. … We’re fully aware that people want what we have,” Hurley said before the season. “I’m about the work and I’m about the desperation to do it again and try to make history this year.”

NOV. 27 SHOULD HAVE been a celebratory day for UConn basketball. The Huskies dominated New Hampshire for the better part of 40 minutes, rolling to an 84-64 win — their 24th consecutive double-digit win over a nonconference opponent, breaking the NCAA record set by North Carolina in 2008-09. It was a benchmark Hurley and his players admitted was in the back of their minds in the days before the game.

But the Huskies weren’t content with a 20-point win and a 7-0 start. Hurley and Moore each picked up technical fouls in the final minutes, and Hurley said after the game he was “seething,” presumably about the officiating that sent New Hampshire to the free throw line 29 times in the second half.

“When you take the court, we deserve the respect from everyone on the court that a national championship team deserves. And then we need to play up to the standard, too,” he told reporters following the win. “We’re the national champs. I’ve been on the other side playing the national championship-level teams. There’s a respect you earn when you win that, that you kind of should get. That I see other people get, and have gotten, and continue to get.”

Still searching for respect epitomizes the UConn blue-blood debate.

From a results perspective, 20-point victories and unbeaten starts are the expectation in Storrs. But while being perceived as a blue blood might not have a tangible impact on wins and losses, there’s a status that comes with it, one that gets you in the door in recruiting battles and is worth maybe even an extra whistle or two during a game. A reputation that garners a little preseason attention — it was noticeable that UConn didn’t get a single first-place vote in the preseason Big East poll or a player on the preseason All-Big East First Team.

Not having that cachet is motivation for Hurley and UConn.

“Whether we get as much hype as other national brand programs that, in the last 25 years, haven’t done as much as us in terms of producing big results, we’ll come into the season maybe with more of a chip on our shoulder — or maybe two chips,” he said earlier this fall. “And maybe that’s why the program’s been as successful as it’s been.

“Because we don’t carry complacency.”