Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Alex Kirshner

College basketball is changing. UConn’s crushing superiority stays the same

Connecticut Huskies head coach Dan Hurley hugs guard Tristen Newton as the team make their way to victory in the NCAA Tournament final
Connecticut Huskies head coach Dan Hurley hugs guard Tristen Newton as the team make their way to victory in the NCAA Tournament final. Photograph: Bob Donnan/USA Today Sports

The University of Connecticut already had a men’s basketball dynasty. How else to describe a program that had won five national titles since 1999, with those victories coming under three different head coaches? If dynasties are hereditary, the Huskies passed theirs from Jim Calhoun to Kevin Ollie to their current boss, Dan Hurley. All that happened on Monday night was a set of affirmations – that Hurley has built something even better than Connecticut had before. And that, for now, the only other team that compares is Dawn Staley’s unbeaten South Carolina in the women’s game.

A 75-60 win over Purdue in the national championship game was a master class in every sense. The Boilermakers had a player who has been the best in men’s college basketball for two years: the running, hulking center Zach Edey. Hurley’s team had a plan, which revealed itself as the night went on: UConn would take their chances and let Edey bang away near the basket, but they would otherwise cut Purdue’s strengths out from under them. The Boilermakers were one of the country’s best three-point-shooting teams all season, making more than 40% of their shots from beyond the arc. On Monday, they went 1-for-7 from that range. Edey’s 37 points didn’t matter when the other Purdue players had 23 combined. UConn’s scoring attack, on the other hand, came in waves, a perfect testament to the depth Hurley has built at his outpost in Storrs, Connecticut.

Hurley is flatly the best coach in men’s college basketball right now. His profession is at a generational crossroads, as several legends of the game have retired over the past few years, or will soon. (So long, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim, Roy Williams, and Jay Wright.) Not exactly young at 51 but with lots of career left if he wants it, Hurley has established himself as the leader of a new generation of college coaches. He has done that by winning: Two national titles in a row put him in rare air, and all 12 opponents in the past two NCAA tournaments lost to him by at least 13 points. “What could you say? We won. By a lot, again,” Hurley told reporters afterward. Indeed they did.

But Hurley’s Connecticut stand out for their manner of victory as much as the extent of it. He has staged his ascent at a moment of change in college sports. Players can now collect money from third parties, and the combination of those payments and recently loosened transfer rules mean that roster management is nothing like what it was in the days of Hurleys’ retired peers. At the same time, programs that rely too heavily on the recruitment of high school superstars have fallen short in tournament after tournament. Kentucky’s John Calipari, the poster boy for that method, looks to be bolting.

In that chaotic environment, UConn are a picture of stability. The Huskies do recruit NBA talent. Several players from last year’s champs have joined the league, and more are coming. (Guard Stephon Castle and center Donovan Clingan are about to become wealthy young men.) But the Huskies are not a magnet for legions of star recruits who leave college after one season, even if Castle soon does. At the same time, Hurley has worked the transfer portal effectively without blocking the growth of too many players on his own roster. Tristen Newton, the guard who led this team in scoring, played three years at East Carolina before joining up at UConn and playing a vital role on back-to-back title teams.

None of this is all that splashy, and it’s why a program that has two titles in two years and six in 26 will never have the same mainstream cachet of Duke or Kentucky. Those programs are eternal stopovers for future top NBA picks, and they hold a cultural perch that will remain elusive to everyone else. The genius of Connecticut is that the Huskies don’t care about those style points, nor have they let a lack of them prevent the program from lapping the likes of Duke and Kentucky in recent championships. (Since the turn of the century, the count of championships is UConn five, Duke and Kentucky a combined four.)

UConn have done their business over a long enough timespan that there is not much reason to expect it to abate soon. The Huskies have had a few messy down years, but their success has been stunningly durable given the transformations that have occurred around them. They have not only won it all under three coaches but in what amounts to three different conferences. They won their first three men’s titles in the old edition of the Big East, which had a handful of Eastern religious colleges and a mix of secular schools that have since made football-driven moves to other leagues. UConn did too, for a moment, and won another title in the American Athletic. They returned home to a reconstituted Big East after realizing that the move made no sense. Two more titles have flowed forth.

All of which is to say: Nobody knows how long Hurley will be at UConn. Nobody knows how the team’s roster may change from year to year. But everyone knows the Huskies have become one of a kind. And after Monday, even fewer could protest that they have crafted a multi-generational dynasty.

Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Already a member? Sign in here
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.