When You Think You Can’t, Perhaps U Conn.

So Storrs, Connecticut, the least desirable and least coastal home of this year’s men’s NCAA Final Four, will be where the national championship trophy will wind up this year.  The best of the unlikliest quartet in tournament history, the Huskies of the University of Connecticut wound up ending the Cinderella aspirations of San Diego State with a 76-59 win last night in Houston.

On paper, the results were in so many ways predicatable and the game was ridiculed as boring by most observers.  As Jeff Borzello of ESPN.com reported this morning, that was certainly the case early on:

UConn assistant coach Tom Moore embraced guard Tristen Newton in a big hug as he walked toward the bench. Head coach Dan Hurley high-fived his players as they jogged off the floor. The Huskies’ fan section was the loudest it had been all night.

It wasn’t the end of the game. It wasn’t even the end of the first half. There was still 2:55 left in the half, but the Huskies had opened up a 16-point lead on San Diego State and had all the momentum.

At that point, the final outcome seemed decided and the second half, for all intents and purposes, looked to be a coronation.

And at that point, my politically obsessed roommate demanded I switch to FOX News, ever worried about poor little Donnie and his date in New York City today, I retreated to my room, and promptly fell asleep.

Seems like I missed not only the best part, but perhaps the part that best resembled the past season, and indeed the past decade for UConn:

San Diego State had other ideas, cutting the Huskies’ lead all the way down to five — but UConn promptly responded with a knockout punch to close out one of the most dominant runs in NCAA tournament history.

The Huskies are being rightfully annointed and celebrated this morning as a “blue blood” among college basketball programs, and as Borzello noted, this year’s champs are gaining accoloades from many of those who contributed to the other championships of the last 24 years:

The Huskies have now won five national championships in the past 24 years, under three different coaches, with Jim Calhoun leading the program in 1999, 2004 and 2011, Kevin Ollie in 2014 and now Hurley. UConn officially reaffirmed its status as one of the premier programs in college basketball.

It also likely ends the discussion surrounding the Huskies’ inclusion — or exclusion — from the sport’s blue blood programs.

“This is number five,” former UConn star Emeka Okafor told ESPN after the game. “We have one in every decade for the past four decades … I don’t know how you would deny a school who has the most championships in the past 25 years. This will definitely end the debate, if there was any.”

Program legend Ray Allen agreed.

“Over the years, you hit these ebbs and flows, these peaks and valleys, but they’ve always managed to right the ship and get back to the top,” Allen said. “You just have to always push the narrative. We win here. We’re going to continue to win here … We don’t come here just to exist; we come here to win.”

But let it not be forgotten that the program has had its down moments, both in recent times and especially in the fortnight and change of March Madness 2023.  The first three titles under Calhoun were won when the Huskies were among the premiere programs of the original Big East.  Then, after the conference’s ill-advised attempt to try and compete in football went bad, the Huskies moved to the more geographically disparare American Athletic Conference.  The 2014 title under Ollie was delivered in their first AAC year, but later teams under Ollie’s watch lacked the appeal of the Big East, and several finished under .500 and without even a post-season appearance.  Hurley, who was the youngest member of a basketball royal family that included his legendary Jersey City high school coach Bob and older brother Bobby, a star on the 1990s Duke champions, was hired during the last of those three aberrative sub-.500 teams, and shephered the team’s return to the now-reconstructed Big East in fall 2020, when crowds were still not allowed to see games in most venues.

So quietly, U Conn rebuilt its swagger, and this season was exemplary of the valleys and peaks it has endured.   They were not even in the Top 25 pre-season poll; two Big East rivals, Creighton and Villanova, were.  Then look at the roller coaster ride they went on:

In the record books, UConn will be listed among the national champions as a 4-seed. Fifty years from now, the Huskies’ run to a title will seem like something of a surprise on paper. In reality, this was arguably the best team in the country for four of the five months of the season.

According to BartTorvik.com, the Huskies were No. 2 in adjusted efficiency margin from the start of the season until Dec. 30. They dropped to No. 30 from Dec. 31 until the end of January, when they lost six of eight games. But since Feb. 1, they’ve been No. 1 — No. 2 in February, No. 1 in March and, of course, No. 1 in April.

They played 17 games against teams outside the Big East. They won all 17 games by double figures.

It was all capped by one of the most dominant NCAA tournament runs in history, with UConn winning its six NCAA tournament games by an average of 20.0 points, the fourth-largest average since the tournament expanded in 1985. The Huskies are also the fifth team since 1985 to win all six of their games by double digits.

And even that miraculous tournament run had its challenges, as The New York Times’  Billy Witz reminded this morning:

The Huskies walked into soiled hotel rooms when they arrived in Las Vegas. Their bus was broken into while they were at practice. And Jordan Hawkins, their star guard, was curled up on the floor of his hotel room on Friday, stricken with illness and complaining about some calamari.

After enduring that, did anyone really think the Aztecs’ comeback would actually succeed?

I slept like a baby through all of it, as I suspect many did.  While in all likelihood the game will still outdraw the record TV audience that the women’s championship game set on ABC and the ESPN family of networks the prior day, the gap between genders in college basketball popularity is now narrower than ever.

But, to be sure, they’re celebrating in Connecticut.  Thankfully providing a reason for the Tri-State area to celebrate, rather than focus on the rallies, motorcades and fake news perp walks going on in New York City today.

So if for no reason than to celebrate resillience and resurrection–which I certainly can identify with–celebrate the Huskies today.

Because just when you may think you can’t, U Conn.


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