UConn’s fifth national championship, five years in the making

At the peak of the net-cutting ladder during the absolute peak of his basketball life, Dan Hurley smiled, turned to the right and shouted with joy toward his players, the ones who completed arguably the most dominant run in NCAA Tournament history with a 76-59 triumph over San Diego State in the national championship game Monday night.

You can point to Adama Sanogo (17 points, 10 rebounds) and Tristen Newton (19 points, 10 rebounds) each recording double-doubles as the reason UConn won. You can also point to Jordan Hawkins, who hit a late three to put any hopes of a San Diego State comeback to rest. Or in a more simple way, you can celebrate it as a team effort, with each player in their deep rotation contributing something critical along the way.

But for a deeper look into why UConn won its fifth title, it’s best you start with March 23, 2018, the day Hurley was introduced as the program’s head coach.

During his press conference at the Werth Family Basketball Center, UConn’s glitzy training facility, Hurley spoke confidently, but not at the level you, rightfully so, have seen from him throughout the last month. He was quieter, even a tad shy for his standards, but still came across authoritative with a definitive plan. Like on Monday night at the top the ladder, he also turned to the right when at the podium, where his new squad sat.

On this occasion, though, he was addressing a broken team, not one that just secured a championship. The 2017-18 Huskies had wrapped up their miserable season 15 days earlier with a loss to SMU in the first round of the American Athletic Conference Tournament. At 14-18, they didn’t even qualify for the NIT. They had no idea what the future held for them without the man who brought them in – coach Kevin Ollie.

In a podcast appearance last week with Barstool Sports, Hurley was blunt about the group he inherited.

“It was a disaster. From talent, the way these guys were moving on campus, like academics, behavior. It was so far away from anything you could win with. Everything was a mess.”

It would have been an easy move for Hurley to clean house immediately with the roster. He wouldn’t have been the first coach to do so when arriving at a new school. For a recent example, look no further than Rick Pitino at St. John’s. Or in football with Deion Sanders at Colorado.

Instead, Hurley gave them a chance.

“We’ll begin by building a championship culture with that group of men over there,” he said in the press conference. “The sky’s the limit for that group. The commitment that needs to be made is that they understand the program they’re in, from the prestige and tradition. The responsibility of putting on a UConn uniform is as great a responsibility of any program in the country. That looks like a highly motivated group to get this program back to the level it deserves to be at. I look forward to working with those guys.”

After the press conference, Hurley met with the media off to the side for further questions. I followed up on his reply to working with inherited players, trying to gauge his sincerity.

“I truly understand what they are going through, especially after dealing with players in similar situations (at Wagner and Rhode Island, his previous two college head coaching roles),” Hurley said. “I am going to give each of them a real chance to stay and be a part of this.”

While there were bumps in the road and some players who did seek transfers, Hurley walked the walk.

Christian Vital, notably, had his run-ins with Hurley. He put his name in the NBA draft at one point and toyed with the idea of transferring, but ultimately stuck it out and thrived, leading the Huskies to a 19-12 record in Hurley’s second season (season one ended with a 16-17 record and no postseason berth). UConn was on the brink of making a run to an NCAA Tournament bid before Covid struck, forcing the cancellation of the postseason.

Tyler Polley and Isaiah Whaley, both Ollie recruits, both had choices to make. They chose to stay and helped UConn reach the NCAA Tournament in their final two seasons.

Last season, after hitting a huge shot to help beat Villanova, leading to the fans storming the court, Polley took a moment to compare the difference between his first and final season at UConn.

“Compared to my freshman year, the way (Villanova) beat us here in XL (81-61) to where we are now, it’s a great feeling,” Polley said. “It shows how far we have come as a program.”

Another Ollie recruit, Mamadou Diarra, also decided not to abandon ship. Unfortunately, due to chronic knee issues, he had to retire from playing. Hurley kept him around the program, though, as a student assistant, giving him a chance finish his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, while teaching him the ropes of coaching. Today, Diarra is the program’s Director of Player Development.

Hurley, in his first couple of years at UConn, often spoke about building a culture. He proved that he wasn’t all talk and his vision was reachable. In what seems rarer and rarer in sports, Hurley is loyal and genuine, and has shown a great ability to read the room.

After a head-scratching 11-point loss to St. John’s at home in Hartford on January 15th, Hurley questioned publicly whether some of his team was fully engaged. That comment appeared to resonate. The Huskies won 16 of their final 20 games.

This season’s group, outside of a rough stretch in January, barreled through each challenge, from their coach, their demanding fan base and questions from the national media scene. They ran through the Phil Knight Invitational in Portland over Thanksgiving weekend. They rebounded from that previously mentioned January malaise. They destroyed non-conference competition to UConn women levels of domination, going 18-0, including wins over Iona (by 24), St. Mary’s (by 15), Arkansas (by 23), Gonzaga (by 28), Miami (by 13) and San Diego State (by 17) in the NCAA Tournament.

From Adama Sanogo turning into an unstoppable force in the paint, Andre Jackson’s defense, ball-handling and passing, Jordan Hawkins’ shooting, Alex Karaban’s ability to make the right play in every big moment to Bristol’s Donovan Clingan literally scaring defenders away from the basket, the Huskies had an answer for everything.

This was Hurley’s vision, going back to that original press conference. On Monday, standing atop the ladder, he was able to look down and admire his work, a project five years in the making. A rebuild to perfection.

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