UConn’s dominant title run proves that Huskies do ‘run college basketball’

GLENDALE, Ariz. – The chants of U-C-O-N-N hailed down for a 12th straight time on the NCAA Tournament stage as the team from the northeast farmland of Storrs, Connecticut — where they get through the long and cold winters with the warmth of basketball success — has made history. 

Billy Donovan, you now have company, and the name of the man joining you is Dan Hurley. The 51-year-old UConn head coach has done what feels more and more impossible by the day in the current age of college basketball, losing five of his top eight scorers from a national championship team and somehow managing to lead his program to back-to-back titles for the first time since Donovan and Florida did it in 2006 and 2007.

But this year’s team didn’t just repeat; it dominated, closing out the 2024 NCAA Tournament with an impressive 75-60 win over Zach Edey and the Purdue Boilermakers on Monday night at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. UConn won its six tournament games by a combined margin of 140 points, which is the highest mark ever by an NCAA men’s tournament champion.

“Obviously, what could you say?” Hurley said. “We won … by a lot again.”

With the victory, UConn improved to 6-0 in national championship games, matching North Carolina for the third-most titles all-time and cementing themselves as one of the greatest programs in the history of the sport. Only UCLA (11) and Kentucky (eight) own more national championships than the Huskies.

“I think it’s up there in terms of the greatest two-year runs that a program has ever had,” Hurley said. “I can’t say anything about Duke because I’m going to piss my brother [Bobby] off. But I guess I can say stuff about Florida. But I love Billy Donovan. 

“I just think it’s the best two-year run in a very, very long time just because of everything we lost from last year’s team. To lose that much and, again, to do what we did again, it’s got to be as impressive a two-year run as a program’s had since prior to whoever did it before Duke. To me, it is more impressive than what Florida and Duke did because they brought back their entire teams. We lost some major players.” 

The Huskies lost three starters from their 2023 championship team, including Jordan Hawkins and Andre Jackson, who were both NBA Draft picks, and Adama Sanogo, who was the Most Outstanding Player of last year’s Final Four.

But the three main returnees from last season’s title-winning team — Tristen Newton, Alex Karaban and Donovan Clingan — have entered themselves into a special column in UConn lore, and are simply wired differently.

There’s Newton, the Cool Hand Luke point guard, who became the first player ever to record 20 points, five rebounds, five assists and not commit a single turnover in a national championship game. The senior floor general delivered 20-7-5 with not a single mistake in a masterclass performance on Monday night.

“This coaching staff trusts in me to run the team, so I have no choice at UConn but to capitalize off the opportunity,” Newton told FOX Sports. “The coaches did a great job getting me to come back. Our idea was to be one year and done, but after winning the first national championship, you immediately want to do it again.

“Our culture and relentless competitiveness helped us win two in a row. It’s selflessness. It’s buying into your role. It’s winning. Defense, rebounding and sharing the ball. Those are the three messages for every game. We did that every game this year, and I’d say it worked out pretty well.”

There’s Karaban, the sophomore stretch forward who told me postgame that Hurley and his star-studded staff of Luke Murray, Kimani Young and Tom Moore have a knack for identifying guys who are “wired on basketball.” 

Then there’s the local product, Clingan, the jolly green giant who will get picked early on draft night this June and has entered his name into the book of UConn legends.

“What we showed tonight is that we have the best team in the country and the best staff in the country,” Clingan said. “Nobody practices two and a half hours the day before a game. This team just loves each other, man. It was the best decision of my life to come to this school.” 

And it was the best decision for UConn athletic director David Benedict to hire Hurley in 2018, pulling him from Rhode Island to Storrs, where he has found the perfect marriage and a fan base that feeds off basketball success. There’s nothing normal when it comes to college basketball in Storrs, because that wouldn’t be good enough to do the extraordinary. 

It’s why Cam Spencer elected to come to UConn for a fifth season of college basketball, and why he wouldn’t talk to anybody in October when he lost an exhibition shooting competition to his teammates, and why he tackled Hurley in the final seconds of Monday night’s game when he came off the court.

“It’s the winning standard here, and accountability every single day,” Spencer told FOX Sports when asked what makes UConn such a special place. “This program is all about winning, and there’s a blue-collar toughness in Storrs, Connecticut. Everything here is about growing as a player and finding ways to win.”

That nonstop drive to keep adding to the hardware shelves could be heard in Hurley’s postgame comments.

“Yeah, we’ll enjoy this for a couple of days,” Hurley said when asked what’s next. “On the flight home tomorrow, we’ll start talking about what the roster’s going to look like. Obviously, we graduate some players. We’re going to lose a couple potentially to the NBA early entry. We’re going to dive in and put together a roster that can play a comparable level of basketball to the one that you guys have witnessed the last two years. That will be our mindset.” 

That very mindset, coupled with the results on the court, cannot be argued, which is why Hurley said he’s not thinking about the Kentucky coaching job.

“The last thing I’m thinking about is another place,” Hurley said. “We’re in a position right now to be back-to-back in an era that makes it tough to do it, and now you’re thinking about the chance to do it three times, like a dynasty in modern times. That’s what I’m thinking about.”

Hurley has a great level of respect for the University of Connecticut and looks at the program’s historic run as a way to make Benedict and the people who hired him proud.

“Dave Benedict and this school saw something in me, and I’m just thrilled to be able to pay this place back for what they’ve done and the opportunity they’ve given me,” Hurley told FOX Sports. “They’ve given us the resources to put together a dynasty.” 

In this ever-changing world of college basketball, winning back-to-back titles is impressive alone. But Hurley and his staff have a unique ability to find talented players who are wired to win, which makes this UConn program one scary freight train for the rest of college basketball. 

On Monday night, the Huskies flexed their muscles once again, and even with the two-time national player of the year, Zach Edey, scoring 37 points for Purdue, it didn’t matter in the end result. And in the process of winning a second straight national title, this UConn program put together the most recent display of a run of excellence that stands in a class of its own. 

Hurley’s words during the postgame trophy ceremony are validated when a program accomplishes what UConn has done:

“For the last 30 years, UConn has been running college basketball.” 

John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.

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