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Dom Amore: For UConn men, it's one crown down, a few more to go

Dom Amore, Hartford Courant on

Published in Basketball

STORRS, Conn. — Easily sat the crown of national champions upon the heads of UConn men’s basketball players.

Not so comfortable are the thorns in their sides, the things they didn’t win. Maybe some teams in this position wouldn’t even realize there were thorns, but Dan Hurley kept reminding the Huskies of the pinch.

“The Big East (tournament), the regular season championship, not getting either one, as great as a national championship is, this was a thorn in our side,” Hurley said Sunday, after UConn clinched the Big East regular season title with a dominant win, 91-61 over Seton Hall and cut down the nets at Gampel Pavilion. “Next to getting to a Final Four or winning a national championship, winning the regular season of a conference like this is the hardest thing to do, harder than the Big East Tournament, because you’ve got to earn it in a true round-robin in some incredibly tough places to play, the most physical league in college basketball, the best coaches in the country.”

It wasn’t hard for Hurley to convince his players that this was now the big deal. It’s so hard to accomplish, UConn had not won an outright conference championship since 1999, the year program won its first national championship. In 2004, the Huskies went 33-6 and won the NCAA championship again — but finished 12-4, a game behind Pitt in the original Big East. In 2011, UConn went 9-9 in the Big East, then won five games in five days in New York, and rolled all the way to title No. 3. In 2014, UConn lost three times to Louisville, was fourth-seed in the American Athletic Conference, then won it all. And last season, they were the No. 4 in the new Big East at 13-7, lost to Marquette in the conference semifinals, but won all six NCAA Tournament games by double digits.

That’s a lot of winning on the national stage without commanding the back yard. Now that thorn is gone, business no longer unfinished.

“We feel like it’s harder to win the Big East than the national championship,” Tristen Newton said. “If you get hot at a certain time, winning six games in a row — I mean, it’s difficult — but it’s harder to be consistent over a 20-game stretch and be able to outlast opponents that study you day in and day out. So we feel like this is, maybe not a bigger accomplishment, but it’s right up there with the national championship of last year.”

You don’t have to buy the logic; the Huskies did. There is always the need to keep creating reasons for a championship team to feel unsatisfied, retain its edge. Four times, the national championship created the happiest of endings for seasons with disappointments. Now, the Huskies were determined to eliminate bumps in the road to Phoenix and the Final Four, put the horses before the bandwagon.

This is the continuation of rare winning spree by a rare group with a rare opportunity before it. UConn is 41-5 since Jan. 31, 2023, and only seven of those wins have come against mid-majors. Even if the new configuration is not like the original Big East, it still meant, for this UConn team, winning 16 of 18 games in a conference in which eight of 11 teams are either tournament shoo-ins or on the bubble.

Teams like St. John’s, Villanova and Seton Hall are fighting for their tournament lives, but the Huskies still fought harder, playing with a thorn in the side they were desperate to pull out, and crushed them remorselessly. This year’s ‘revenge tour’ had only one stop. UConn lost at Seton Hall in the first conference game, with Stephon Castle working back from an injury and Donovan Clingan going down mid-game. In the rematch, Clingan had 19 points and 11 rebounds and Castle scored 21, and held Kadary Richmond, speaking of thorns, to a quiet 15 points. Projected lottery picks did projected lottery-pick things as UConn wrapped this up.

 

UConn built a huge lead before Cam Spencer even scored a point. He finished with five. Opponents can pick a player to shut down, as the Pirates did Spencer, but there are too many other weapons. “That’s what makes us unique,” Hurley said.

But what makes the Huskies scary is the edge, the buy-in to what Hurley is selling. He put the picture of the trophy in front of his players all year, carried it around until it was battered and frayed at the edges, and this time they didn’t let up until the real trophy arrived at Gampel.

So now the Huskies are officially the Big East’s beasts, a long time coming. The next thorn that’s been festering is the conference tournament at Madison Square Garden. The Huskies are 4-0 there this season, place they like to believe is their third home court. In two weeks, they’ll have a chance to conquer it after semifinal exits the last three years. UConn hasn’t won the Big East tournament since 2011.

Between now and then, the Huskies have two regular-season game on the road, at Marquette and Providence. The hook? Hurley wants the No. 1 seed in the East, and the chance to play the first two rounds in Brooklyn, the next two in Boston.

“We’ve talked about it for a while,” Clingan said. “But we’ve got to win the games, win out, to be able to do it. We can say we want to go play Brooklyn then Boston, but you’ve got to go out and execute and put yourself in that position.”

Hurley says he’s been getting emotional thinking about the players, including his son, Andrew, Spencer, Newton, Clingan, Castle, Alex Karaban, and assistant coaches who could be leaving when this season ends. It’s hard to blame him, nor could one blame them for savoring this preliminary-round victory by cutting down nets on March 3, even if there is every reason to believe there will be more twine-collecting, much more, to come. One by one, players reminded fans “we’re not done.”

“We just have a culture in place that’s taken years to build,” Hurley said. “We’re just recruiting people and families into the program who have shared values, appreciate the culture and how hard we work with their players. We’ve just got the right mix.”


©2024 Hartford Courant. Visit courant.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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