UConn men's basketball faces new challenges as defending national champion

Sep. 9—STORRS — Winning a national championship elevates your status not only in the college basketball world but also on campus.

Just ask any of the Huskies who secured the program's fifth national title in April.

Sophomore Donovan Clingan, who at 7-foot-2 is literally the Big Man on Campus, received a warm reception during the first week of classes.

His status isn't the only thing that has been elevated. Expectations of the team have as well.

"It's definitely a little different than last year," Clingan said on Friday. "Walking to class, people just say, 'Congrats,' or 'Clingan, what's up? Expecting great things this year.'

"No pressure, right? But I appreciate that. I just realize I have a lot of people on my side and our side, and that we've got the support. It makes us feel good."

After a spring and summer full of celebrations and appearances, UConn has switched into season mode now that school is back in session.

With a healthy roster, the Huskies ran a team workout in Gampel Pavilion on Friday under the watchful eye of coach Dan Hurley. The season opener is just over two months away on Nov. 6 against Northern Arizona.

"The first practice is on the 25th, so it feels like it is right around the corner and we'll be playing shortly," veteran guard Tristen Newton said. "I can't wait to get back in Gampel and XL and start Big East play and all that."

As opposed to entering last season when the Huskies flew under the radar as an unranked team, the Huskies will start off in the top 10 and be in the spotlight.

Hurley is on "complacency watch," looking for any hint of a post-national title winning letdown.

"You're just looking for any little sign of complacency," Hurley said. "You're so hyper-vigilant that way."

So far, Hurley hasn't seen any signs.

Hurley had a sneak preview of his 2023-24 team while playing three games during a foreign tour as well as during summer workouts on campus.

The Huskies have some big holes to fill with the loss of their big three of Adama Sanogo, Andre Jackson Jr, and Jordan Hawkins and key reserves Joey Calcaterra and Naheim Alleyne.

"I learned during the whole summer that it's a talented team, that we've got a lot of really exciting pieces again," Hurley said. "And that the potential is going to be there for us again to have a big season.

"But what you learn from a negative standpoint, is just how great of leaders Andre and Adama were, how important Joey's personality was and Jordan's confidence and approach. We've gotta replace those tangible and intangible things."

Hurley is encouraging UConn's new big three of Alex Karaban, Newton and Clingan to step into leadership roles.

He has made a few tweaks in his coaching approach due to bringing in a talented five-player freshmen class that includes Solomon Ball, Jaylin Stewart, Stephon Castle, Jayden Ross and Youssouf Singare. The newcomers are still learning the Hurley Way — all out intensity, all the time.

Several of the freshmen will be counted to contribute right away.

"I have to be careful as the coach of this team and a leader that I don't expect this team right now to be playing like the team that last played for us in March and April," Hurley said. "It's hard to get to that level right here, right now.

"And then just don't go so far in my search for complacency and be a complete monster with people when it's not warranted, where I'm seeing ghosts, things that aren't happening and I'm going too far to find cracks and complacency. ... That's probably my mindset right now, is to show a little bit of patience with this group because it's going to take a little bit of time. We've got some new guys that are going to have to find their way."

Newton hasn't noticed a difference in Hurley.

"He's always going to be coach," Newton said. "He's always going to come in ready. He's going to yell at everybody for little things. He wants everything to be perfect. He's still coach, he's still yelling and he's still himself."

News and notes

— UConn is raising the level of its social media and content game. Hurley will be regularly wearing a microphone and followed around by the school's creative content crew. "It's definitely scary, but we're proud of the way we do things," Hurley said. "We definitely want to put out more content for our fans. No one has done what we've done in college basketball in the last 25 years. ... We just want our fans to have a little bit of a better view of our program. We probably don't get as much attention as we probably deserve."

— According to Hurley, UConn has been approached by "a couple of different folks" to do an inside-the-program production that would run after the season. "We're thinking about it. But we're also weighing the distraction part of it, too."

— Sanogo, Jackson and Calcaterra attended Friday's team workout but didn't participate. "It was meaningful just for the young guys to have three national champions here," Karaban said. "It was awesome having them back."

— Upcoming dates: First Night for the men's and women's basketball program is Friday, Oct. 13; Big East Media Day at Madison Square Garden is Tuesday, Oct. 24.