Anatomy of a repeat: How the UConn men’s basketball team reloaded for second straight title run

He wore sunglasses and his national championship hat turned backward as he climbed off the double-decker bus and onto the stage where the first week of celebration concluded. In front of the XL Center in Hartford, Governor Ned Lamont called him to speak from the podium as the “champion of champions.”

He raised both index fingers like a rock star as he walked over, bobbing his head to the rhythm of the crowd chanting his last name: “HUR-LEY! HUR-LEY! HUR-LEY!”

Dan Hurley looked out at a sea of more than 45,000 that filled Trumbull Street, decked out in Huskies merchandise – shirts, hats, flags, sunglasses, temporary face tattoos – holding signs and stuffed animals with the likeness of Jonathan the mascot. He reminded the people that Storrs is the “Basketball Capital of the World” and described the 31-8 season that culminated in the program’s fifth national championship as “magical.”

“All we thought about the whole year was we’ve got to strive for five, get that fifth national championship, and now we really want to get our minds to making sure that we’re back in the mix to get number six!” he said a year ago.

It was a “mic drop” moment that did exactly what it was intended to do. Hurley held up six fingers as he walked away from the podium and the crowd erupted. Jordan Hawkins, behind him to his right, counted up to six on his own fingers. Andre Jackson Jr. and Adama Sanogo, both subdued in the back, looked at each other and smiled. All three would hear chants of “ONE MORE YEAR” before their turn to speak.

“At that time, knowing how much we were losing, I think that was probably more bravado and just something that the fans needed to hear that day to fire everybody up,” Hurley admitted Monday night, after fulfilling the promise with a second national championship a year later.

The reload

Donovan Clingan used the line just a few hours after leaving downtown Hartford as a caption to an Instagram post announcing his return for a sophomore season. That post immediately provided fans a sense of optimism that it really could happen again. Visions of the hometown kid stepping into a larger role and leading the Huskies back up the mountain weren’t some far-fetched fantasy.

“I mean, it’s crazy…” he said Monday night as he rocked back into his locker, strained his eyes and exhaled through trilling lips. “I don’t even know, I ran out of words.”

The run was especially crazy because of the departures that came next.

Hawkins went on ESPN’s NBA Today the day before the parade with the championship trophy set up on a table between him and Hurley in the network’s studio, where he announced his decision to enter the NBA Draft live on the show. It was no surprise, part of the plan that was established before he ever got to Storrs and earned his lottery projection, but it wasn’t clear who else would follow.

Five days after the parade on April 13, Sanogo announced his declaration for the draft in a social media post that, despite him maintaining eligibility, read like a farewell to UConn. “I will always cherish my time at UConn and will always be my home away from home,” he wrote. “21 out.”

Those visions of Clingan taking over got clearer.

That same day, Nahiem Alleyne decided to enter the transfer portal. He would be the second bench guard to leave with Joey Calcaterra graduating, and made his move to join Rick Pitino at St. John’s three days later.

Jackson, the decision with the least clarity, waited until April 18 before ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski announced his decision to enter the draft and maintain his eligibility. Tristen Newton made the same decision two days after that.

And then came May 31, the NCAA early entry deadline, when all three would have to make their decision to either remain in the draft or withdraw and retain college eligibility. Both Sanogo and Jackson, who participated in the NBA Draft Combine, decided to remain.

Newton, who was invited to the G League Elite Camp but was not one of the eight prospects selected to advance to the Combine, spoke to Hurley and the UConn coaches for hours. Hurley convinced him that if he came back he’d have an increased role with the ball in his hands, a chance to compete for another national title and improve his draft status while doing so.

“He told me the truth,” Newton said at his locker as a two-time champion, a Final Four Most Outstanding Player, a Bob Cousy Award winner and consensus First Team All-American.

Newton would join Clingan and forward Alex Karaban, who started in 38 of 39 games in the first championship season. Hassan Diarra would elevate his game and become the sixth man and Samson Johnson would move back to center and boost the athleticism in the Huskies’ two-headed monster at the five, backing up Clingan. He’d also have a five-star freshman, Stephon Castle, joining him in the backcourt and a handful of other rookies who’d develop.

The freshmen moved onto campus shortly after Newton’s decision to return, around the time a transfer portal recruit, Cam Spencer, would visit.

UConn began recruiting Towson transfer Nicolas Timberlake shortly after it returned from the Final Four in Houston, looking to add a shooter who could help replace the productivity left by Hawkins’ departure. Timberlake chose Kansas on April 18, and the Huskies had to keep looking.

Spencer entered the portal on May 19 and visited UConn in early June. Immediately upon speaking with Hurley, breaking bread over their similar competitive backgrounds and personalities, they both knew it was a perfect fit.

“We laid it out for Cam Spencer: ‘Hey Cam, if you don’t join us we’re a top 10, top 15 team. If you do join us we could go back-to-back and the road would be Brooklyn to Boston to Phoenix to get there if we both hold up our end of the bargain,'” Hurley said.

“When we saw how good (Spencer and Castle were) when they got on campus for summer workouts I think we started to have a belief that we would be in the mix for six.”

Stairway to Seven?

Outside the UConn locker room, which had been adorned with a new gold “National Champions” decal, Hurley was asked if he’d thought of a new line for No. 7 at this parade. He hadn’t.

“Seven’s gonna be heaven?” he proposed. “No, that’s like saying you’re gonna do it so maybe not… But that’s a potential.”

Hard to promise a three-peat. Especially with the prospects of losing the entire starting five, “Stairway to Seven” – which was pitched on social media – seems more accurate. Because it would be quite the climb.

Newton and Spencer, the top two scorers who combined for 29.4 points, 11.5 rebounds and 9.8 assists per game, are the only Huskies whose eligibility has expired. Castle (11.1 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2.9 assists) and Clingan (13 points, 7.4 rebounds, 2.5 blocks) are each in a similar position to Hawkins, with draft projections in the lottery making it difficult to imagine their return.

Called “the brain center” of the program, the most consistent player and the one who does the little things to make Hurley’s complex system work, Karaban’s potential return for a junior season could get the Huskies a head start up the stairs. But his circumstances are similar to Jackson’s. He’s referenced chasing Breanna Stewart’s four titles in four years with the women’s program, but has also been mentioned as a potential second round draft choice.

“I know things are going to be a little crazy for the next 10 days. Unfortunately we’re going to head into the portal, like everybody else now. I’ve been dreading this moment but now we’re here,” Hurley said.

The Huskies will likely be looking to add a few shooters and a big man out of the portal to team up with Johnson.

Diarra could return, should he decide to use his fifth year after graduating, and join incoming freshmen Ahmad Nowell and Isaiah Abraham. Jaylin Stewart and Solo Ball, rising sophomores, each picked up some experience this year and should be set for elevated roles. Their classmate, Jayden Ross, also has potential to earn some time with further development over the summer.

“We’ll enjoy this for a couple days. On the flight home 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,” Hurley said.

“That’s I know what our mindset will be. We’re going to be focusing on trying to put together a three-year run, not just a two-year run.”