How UConn's Dan Hurley engineered the best two-year run in modern college basketball history

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The lovable maniac who rebuilt UConn into a juggernaut refused to allow his team to relax.

Dan Hurley exhorted the Huskies to keep pushing for more even though their place in history was already cemented.

He screamed for defensive pressure after an Alex Karaban corner 3-pointer put UConn up 14. He got down in a defensive stance and bellowed “Get a stop!” after a Cam Spencer bucket extended the lead to 18. When his defense dared to allow Purdue to score, Hurley shouted “Don’t let up! Don’t let up!”

UConn never let up, not during its 75-60 takedown of Zach Edey and Purdue in Monday's NCAA championship game, not at any point during a dominant title defense. A team full of talented players with an insatiable desire to win mowed through every opponent in its path en route to a second straight championship and the program’s sixth since 1999.

Only a year ago, the UConn team led by Jordan Hawkins, Andre Jackson Adama Sanogo trounced its six NCAA tournament opponents by 20 points per game. The team that was supposed to be the team after the team proved to be even more unbeatable, winning six NCAA tournament games by a record-setting 23.3 points apiece.

UConn head coach Dan Hurley celebrates with the NCAA championship trophy after their win over Purdue in the title game on Monday in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
UConn head coach Dan Hurley celebrates with the NCAA championship trophy after their win over Purdue in the title game on Monday in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

UConn joins Florida in 2006 and 2007 and Duke in 1991 and 1992 as the only programs to repeat since the demise of John Wooden's UCLA dynasty almost five decades ago. All five Florida starters bypassed the NBA Draft to return to chase a second championship. Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill were among the four Duke starters who did the same.

What UConn has accomplished this season is a different and even more audacious feat. Hurley didn’t have the luxury of bringing his team back intact in a quest for a repeat. Five of last season’s top eight players moved on after the Huskies ripped through the NCAA tournament with startling ease.

When Hurley was asked if he had engineered the greatest two-year run in modern men’s college basketball history, he first would only admit that it’s “up there.”

“I can't say anything about Duke because I'm going to piss my brother off,” he said with a smile. “I guess I can say stuff about Florida. But I love Billy Donovan. So I'm in a bad spot.”

Moments later, Hurley finally admitted the obvious.

Said Hurley, “It's the best two-year run, I think, in a very, very long time.”

Step 1: Stay hungry

UConn’s path to college basketball’s first repeat championship in 17 years began last April almost as soon as the confetti got swept up.

Once the celebrations began to slow and the departing players began NBA Draft preparations, Hurley and his staff examined who was left. They made plans to build around UConn’s three returning standouts: floor-spacing four man Alex Karaban, playmaking point guard Tristen Newton and defensive buzzsaw Donovan Clingan.

Hurley earmarked one remaining starting spot for incoming freshman wing Stephon Castle, the rare McDonald’s All-American whose unselfishness and team-first mentality stood out as much as his talent. The UConn staff filled the other vacant starting spot via the portal, landing sought-after Rutgers sharpshooter Cam Spencer, a kindred spirit to Hurley, the rare player as passionate and driven as he is.

The result was a roster that featured a perfect mix of NCAA tournament-hardened veterans and hungry newcomers. As Hurley said recently, “As soon as we saw how good Cam was and Steph, I think we knew we had a starting five that was going to be as good as what anyone had in the sport.”

What kept Hurley up at night during the offseason wasn’t whether UConn was talented enough. To him the enemy was complacency. He read books on leadership and peppered coaching colleagues with questions about how to help his players remain driven the year after ascending to college basketball’s mountaintop.

Returning players who had already experienced Hurley’s legendarily grueling practices and workouts assumed they had an idea of what was coming last summer. Then, says Karaban with a smile, Hurley “turned it up to another level.”

On the sideline at UConn practices were a set of cardboard posters representing every trophy that the Huskies could win during the upcoming season. Those posters took a beating from Hurley kicking them down or firing projectiles at them whenever he felt his team didn’t practice up to its capabilities.

“He was being extra intense,” Karaban said. “He really gave us a warning on how he was going to approach the season. If you were satisfied with what we did last year, he wasn’t going to tolerate that.”

GLENDALE, ARIZONA - APRIL 06: Head coach Dan Hurley of the. Connecticut Huskies talks to team in locker room after defeating the Alabama Crimson Tide in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Final Four semifinal game at State Farm Stadium on April 06, 2024 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)
UConn head coach Dan Hurley and his intense style kept his team motivated all season after winning a championship a year ago. (Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

In October, UConn played a closed-door scrimmage against a Virginia team unranked in the AP preseason Top 25. The first half was an early glimpse of the Huskies at the top of their game. The reigning champs outscored Tony Bennett’s team by 10-plus points.

The second half was a different story. Virginia, in Hurley’s words, “smashed” a UConn team that was feeling a little too satisfied with itself, outscoring the Huskies so convincingly that it left Hurley wondering if his team was actually any good.

In a film session the next day, Hurley tore into his returning players for their lack of leadership. The way Karaban remembers it, “He ripped me. He ripped Tristen. He told us that we’ve got to do way better if we wanted to have some success this year. Not even all the success we wanted, just some success.”

Message delivered. Loud and clear.

Step 2: Run it back

UConn stormed through the regular season, dropping only three games along the way and steamrolling everyone else. One loss came against Seton Hall when Clingan only played 14 minutes due to injury. The other two came when Kansas and Creighton shot the lights out from 3-point range.

When fans and media were heaping praise on UConn, Hurley would keep his players sharp by reminding them that wasn’t always the case. He constantly brought up that the Huskies were projected third in the Big East preseason poll and had five teams picked ahead of them in the AP preseason Top 25.

“For a lot of the year, we've used the external slights, the perceived slights, all those things, the world's against us mentality,” Hurley said. “I think that gets you through the regular season, the Big East grind.”

It got UConn the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament and paved the way for this run. The Huskies dismantled Illinois in the Elite Eight with a 30-0 run. Alabama shot 8-for-11 from 3-point range in the first half in the national semifinals ... and still trailed.

In Monday's title game, UConn faced the strongest NCAA tournament opponent it has faced the past two seasons, a Purdue team that might have won the title some other years. This was Hurley versus Painter, Clingan versus Edey, the rare winner-take-all matchup between college basketball’s two best teams.

The intriguing clash swung in UConn’s favor in part because of the defensive strategy that Hurley devised. Hell-bent on not allowing Edey’s supporting cast to beat the Huskies from behind the arc, Hurley had Clingan defend the 7-foot-4 Purdue giant by himself as best he could and instructed his perimeter players to erase the Boilermakers’ 3-point shooters.

Edey had a heroic 37 and 10, but it wasn’t nearly enough. Purdue didn’t even attempt its third 3-pointer until a full-court heave at the halftime buzzer. The nation’s No. 2 3-point shooting team finished 1 of 7 from behind the arc, the fewest attempts by any team in the national title game since 1995 UCLA.

“Coming into the game we really felt like if we were able to take the other guys out of the game and really guard the 3-point line, we were willing to concede 25 or 27 from Edey,” UConn assistant coach Luke Murray said. “Their offensive efficiency goes off the charts when those other guys step up and make shots, so that was our game plan.”

Or as Newton put it, “Edey only shoots twos. He doesn't shoot threes. If he makes 15 twos like he did today, that's 30. Where are the rest of the points going to come from?”

Without more support for Edey, Purdue never could catch up. UConn led by six at halftime, by double figures five minutes into the second half and by as many as 18. Newton led the Huskies with 20 points to earn the Final Four’s most outstanding player award. Castle, Spencer and Clingan joined Newton on the five-member all-NCAA tournament team.

It wasn’t until the final minute that Hurley at last relaxed, that he stopped pleading with the referees for phantom foul calls and begging his players for more defensive intensity. When Hurley sent in UConn’s benchwarmers, he chest-bumped Murray, gestured to the UConn crowd for more noise and hugged each of his starters one-by-one as they came off the floor.

An hour later, during his postgame news conference, Hurley was already looking ahead and eyeing a potential dynasty.

“I mean, s***,” he said, “we're going to try to replicate it again. We're going to maintain a championship culture. We're bringing in some very talented high school freshmen. Our returning players, through player development, will take a big jump. We'll strategically add through the portal.

"I don't think that we're going anywhere.”