Advertisement

UConn men’s basketball program doesn’t shy away from legacy talk as it returns to Final Four

The UConn men’s basketball team has only trailed for 28 seconds in this NCAA Tournament. All of those 28 seconds came in the first four minutes of the Sweet 16 game against San Diego State, a rematch of the 2023 national championship.

At that first media timeout, trailing 10-9, players put their hand up, holding themselves accountable for a missed rebound or an extra pass that wasn’t made, whatever they could’ve done better. Out of the timeout, Stephon Castle made one of two from the free throw line, Donovan Clingan stripped Jaedon LeDee and Alex Karaban, in transition, nailed a 3-pointer from the logo.

The Huskies haven’t trailed since.

They went on to win the game by 30 and put together a remarkable 30-0 run to race past Illinois, punching their ticket to the Final Four for the second year in a row. Their average margin of victory through four tournament games is 27.8 points.

“It’s really never stressful,” Karaban said.

Of course it’s not. The UConn players have always pressed forward, saving time for reflection until that final goal is accomplished – or somehow, some way, one of the other three teams left finds a way to beat them. Over the last two years UConn has won 31 of its 32 games against nonconference opponents, all by double-digits. This year it set a new program record for wins (35-3) while claiming dual championships in the Big East and setting a new NCAA Tournament record for consecutive double-digit victories (10), which dates back to last year’s title run.

This euphoric two-year stretch represents an emphatic resurrection of the program under Dan Hurley. And the team hasn’t shied from any of it.

“We’ve just got people that are desperate to win more. We’re winners. We’ve got ‘We’ guys. We’ve also talked about legacy,” Hurley said. “These guys right now are leaving a legacy in a place that’s hard to leave a legacy. It’s been a historical season in a tough place to make history. They’re galvanized by that. It’s special.”

Hurley pointed out Tristen Newton‘s legacy, in particular, saying the consensus First Team All-American is “making a case for the greatest career that any guard’s ever had while wearing the uniform at UConn.” In just two seasons.

UConn didn’t return all five starters like Florida did in 2006 and 2007, or four like Duke in 1991 and 1992.

As UConn’s Dan Hurley chases back-to-back titles, his brother Bobby watches on in amazement

But it did return a core in Newton, Donovan Clingan, Alex Karaban, Samson Johnson and Hassan Diarra that knows what it takes to have success and is professional in digesting it when it comes.

“(Hurley) talks about (legacy) a lot. He talks about it every team meeting that – especially for the returners – that we have the chance to (have) a two-year run that’s never seen in college basketball. To have the chance to win two nattys back-to-back and do what Florida did, even just for ourselves it’s special,” Karaban said. “For the returners, having won every championship that we could already, we just want more and we’re just continuing to be hungry for more.”

UConn is 66-11 since it began last season with a 31-point win over Stonehill. It won the Phil Knight Invitational, the Empire Classic and the Jimmy V Classic, the Big East regular season and the Big East Tournament, a national championship and is back in the Final Four – all in these two years. A second national title would only further etch the group into the school’s loaded history books.

Does the success, making history almost every night, ever get overwhelming?

Maybe if they had some time to take it all in.

“It never gets overwhelming because we know how limited time we have with each other and how short the season really is. I think during the offseason we’ll take a breath and relax, we just want to leave no regrets. It’s never overwhelming for us because we’ve got the best support system with us too,” Karaban said.

“Coach, the way he pushes us in practice we can never get complacent,” added Clingan, so far the star of March. “He’s always pushing us to want more and always wants us to do special things and we all want to do special things. We really just love to win and want to keep winning and realize what’s at the end.”

UConn, on the men’s side, has won five national titles in the last 25 years but had never gone to back-to-back Final Fours. This year’s team, carrying the weight of the target on its back, dominating and demoralizing opponents the way it has, has a legitimate case as UConn’s best team ever.

With two more wins that case becomes even clearer.

“I don’t really think about it, but we do understand that the run we’re on is amazing,” said Diarra, the Big East Sixth Man of the Year. “Honestly we just want to continue that run and that’s why we’re so focused and so locked in. We have the opportunity to make history, not many teams are able to do what we are about to do and we understand that. Coach mentions it but he understands that we’re gonna be locked in on the next opponent, it’s one game at a time, one war at a time, one possession at a time.”

UConn, looking to become one of four programs to have won at least six national titles, would firmly join the conversation as one of the best teams in recent memory (with 1990 UNLV, 1996 Kentucky, 2018 Villanova, the 1999 Huskies, multiple Duke seasons and others) if the job is finished in Phoenix.

“This team right here is just amazing. We’re enjoying it. I hope everybody in the world is enjoying it as much as we are,” Diarra said. “This team has one week left together. We’re going to go down as one of the best teams to ever do it in college basketball.”