UConn's blue blood status can be debated, but there's no denying its college basketball greatness

HOUSTON — Even after he achieved the basketball immortality that he has spent a lifetime chasing, UConn’s human tempest of a basketball coach still could not relax.

“Make sure nobody steals my net!” Dan Hurley shouted with a grin on his face as he exited UConn’s locker room to go to his postgame news conference.

There’s no stealing any of this from Hurley now, not his keepsake, nor his accomplishment. The son of a New Jersey coaching legend and brother of one of college basketball’s greatest point guards at last had his moment in the family spotlight.

With a 76-59 victory over resilient but overmatched San Diego State on Monday night, UConn actualized the vision that Hurley laid out when he was hired. The 50-year-old coach guided the Huskies to their fifth national title in the past quarter century, reaffirming the program's place among college basketball royalty and doing so with a show of dominance seldom seen before.

UConn became the fifth men’s basketball champion to win all six of its games by double digits and the first to win each by 13 or more points. They steamrolled opponents by an average of 20 points per game, narrowly missing 1996 Kentucky’s record for average NCAA tournament margin of victory.

“It feels great to come through on my promises,” Hurley said. “This was our vision. This was our dream. This is what we talked about when we recruited these guys, that we could get together and do something big like this.”

Connecticut head coach Dan Hurley celebrates his team's national title victory over San Diego State on Monday, April 3, 2023, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Connecticut head coach Dan Hurley celebrates his team's national title victory over San Diego State on Monday, April 3, 2023, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

The inevitable question in the wake of UConn’s latest championship is whether the Huskies are now a college basketball blue blood. Have they earned the right to stand alongside traditional powers like Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, Indiana and UCLA?

Five national titles with three different coaches should end the debate for good, except the blue blood criteria is so subjective and imprecise. Some will never acknowledge UConn as a blue blood because it doesn’t have a rich history dating back to the peach basket era, because it didn’t emerge from small-conference obscurity until 1979, because it was eaten alive for much of its first decade in the Big East.

Jim Calhoun’s brash, bold teams of the 1990s and 2000s changed that, punching up in weight class until they were among the sport's heavyweights and then hoisting trophies at a rate no one else could match. Calhoun claimed three national titles before he retired in 2012. Then Kevin Ollie won another with Calhoun's holdovers two years later.

Throw in this season’s overpowering title run, and the case for UConn as the most successful program of the past quarter century is difficult to deny. The Huskies have missed eight NCAA tournaments during that time period, but when they've made it, they've often seized the opportunity.

Only North Carolina and Michigan State have been to more Final Fours since 1999. No one has won more championships. Duke and North Carolina have three national titles apiece since UConn’s first. Kansas, Kentucky, UCLA and Indiana have a combined three between them during that span.

“We’re a blue blood,” UConn freshman Alex Karaban said. “This is our fifth one in 25 years. We’ve won a national championship with three different coaches. People can say what they want, but we know we’re a blue blood."

Count Mike Krzyzewski among those who side with Karaban. Without prompting, the legendary former Duke coach said Sunday on Colin Cowherd’s podcast, “I hate when people say there are no blue bloods in the Final Four. You have to be kidding me.”

Calling Calhoun “maybe the greatest builder of a program,” Krzyzewski added, “Certainly they’re at the level of the few teams that you say are blue bloods.”

To younger UConn fans, the sight of the Huskies swaggering through March is something less familiar. They have never heard of the 1990 “Dream Season” and didn’t experience the heyday of Donyell, Ray, Rip and Ben. They’ve only read about ‘99 UConn toppling an indomitable Duke team. They weren’t yet in high school in 2011 when Kemba Walker put the Huskies on his back or three years later when Shabazz Napier repeated that feat.

UConn, then led by coach Jim Calhoun, beat Duke to win its first NCAA championship in 1999. The Huskies went on to win four more titles in the next 24 years. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
UConn, then led by coach Jim Calhoun, beat Duke to win its first NCAA championship in 1999. The Huskies went on to win four more titles in the next 24 years. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images) (Andy Lyons via Getty Images)

When Hurley took over the program five years ago, UConn had lost its way. The Huskies had only made the NCAA tournament once the previous four seasons while stranded in the hodgepodge American Athletic Conference. They got hit with NCAA sanctions and endured a messy breakup with Ollie.

In January 2020, with his rebuilding efforts still in their infancy, Hurley projected confidence. The fiercely competitive coach defiantly declared after a narrow loss to Villanova, “People better get us now, that’s all. You better get us now. Because it’s coming.”

And it was coming. Just not as quick as Hurley hoped.

UConn didn’t win a postseason game his first four seasons, leading to a heart-to-heart meeting with his best three returning players the Monday after the Huskies’ NCAA tournament flameout against New Mexico State last March. Hurley laid out a plan that day to build a title-caliber roster around playmaking wing Andre Jackson Jr., 3-point sniper Jordan Hawkins and ultra-productive big man Adama Sanogo.

That core and the complementary pieces Hurley added turned UConn into UConn again. The Huskies, aside from one dismal four-week slump during conference play, were the best team in college basketball this season from November until the first Monday in April.

UConn proved that once again in Monday’s title game when they built a 15-point lead midway through the second half and then did not crumble when San Diego State launched its final counterattack. With the margin down to five and UConn facing its first real game pressure of this NCAA tournament, Hawkins buried a 3-pointer to launch a game-clinching 9-0 run.

“Coach drew something up for me,” Hawkins said. “I know he trusted me to make that shot.”

After two hours of slumping his shoulders after makeable shots rimmed out, clasping his hands behind his head after defensive breakdowns and never once sitting on the stool set up for him in front of the UConn bench, Hurley sensed it was at last time to celebrate. With just over a minute to go, Hurley wildly pumped his fist. Then he turned his back on the action and blew kisses to the UConn crowd, many of whom were chanting his name.

The celebration began after the buzzer sounded as UConn players and coaches fittingly danced to DJ Khaled’s “All I Do Is Win” before the presentation of the national championship trophy. A happy Hurley hoisted the trophy and then summed up his career-making night.

“We had the four national championships coming in,” Hurley told CBS’ Jim Nantz. “We’ve been striving for five. Now we’ve got our own.”