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Mike Lopresti | | December 26, 2022

Connecticut — surprising everyone but itself — is back near the top of men's college basketball

Purdue, UConn's continued dominance headlines this week's Power 36 college basketball rankings

Time for some Connecticut men’s basketball trivia.

What did the Huskies do in the 16 years from 1999-2014? Win four national championships, and advance to a fifth Final Four.

What have they done in the eight years since? Win one NCAA tournament game.

Which is why the current rankings are so significant in Storrs, and so is this question.

Connecticut is No. 2, but should the Huskies be No. 1?

You could certainly make a case after their latest tour de rout. They visited Hinkle Fieldhouse and pounded Butler 68-46, moving them to 12-0, all dozen victories by double digits. Five unbeatens remain but only Connecticut has yet to be pushed to the wire at least once.

All the UConn weaponry was on display Saturday, starting with the ferocity on the boards that can create extra shots and sap a team. The Huskies out-rebounded the Bulldogs 54-30 — 18-4 on the offensive end — and outscored them 14-2 in second-chance points.

“It demoralizes the opponent, to play with that type of relentlessness,” coach Dan Hurley said. “It’s like a body blow, a body blow that eventually leads to a headshot knockout.”

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There was the defense that chilled Butler to 29.6 percent shooting. While Adama Sanogo was showing his All-American wares inside with 27 points and 14 rebounds — “Adama played like one of the best players in the country, which he is,” Hurley said — seven different Huskies were burying 3-pointers. Also, the Huskies had 20 assists on 28 baskets.

“Our recipe travels,” Hurley said. “Dominate the backboard, play elite defense, get high assists for the team.

“That’s going to play a lot.”

Connecticut is now second in the nation in scoring margin and rebound margin and in the top 17 in scoring offense and defense and field goal percentage defense, has led by at least 18 points in all 12 games and trailed only 32 out of 480 minutes so far this season. Yikes.

“What’s the identity?” guard Nahiem Alleyne said. “Toughness, gritty, hard-nosed basketball. We’re in the Big East.

“It’s going to happen on the defensive end. Play good defense, your offense is going to come."

This is from a team unranked in the preseason polls and picked fourth in the Big East. Apparently, it was not counted enough, how the 6-9 Sanogo would be one of the nation’s top big men, and how sophomore Jordan Hawkins would develop into such a threat — 5.8 points a game last season, 14.2 now — and how transfers Alleyne, Tristen Newton, Joey Calcaterra and Hassan Diarra would arrive from Virginia Tech, East Carolina, San Diego and Texas A&M and enliven the perimeter game, and how quickly freshmen Alex Karaban and 7-2 Donovan Clingan would take important roles.

Or how Hurley would have his team playing with such purpose. “You see some of those top-100 lists of the best college players in the country coming into the season and we didn’t have that many guys on it,” he said. “In my mind it was a slight for a number of our players.”

And yeah, they noticed the pre-season polls listed no Connecticut. Now the Huskies are banging on the door of No. 1.

“That was something in the non-conference that we used as a motivation piece,” Hurley said of the unranked beginning. “At this point, it isn’t. Would it be nice (to be No. 1)? Absolutely, considering where we’ve been as a program in recent history, and to me personally, being a high school coach not too long ago to be coaching at UConn with a top team.”

Hurley spent most of the first decade of this century coaching high school basketball and teaching history in New Jersey. Then he went to Wagner, then Rhode Island, then UConn in 2018. Meanwhile, brother Bobby is 11-1 at Arizona State so at the moment the Hurley boys clock in at a combined 23-1.

Super Saturday — with its long list of ranked showdowns — was the time for the Huskies to make it even clearer they are relevant again in the national conversation. It was a weekend for other shiny names to get momentum to take into Christmas, too.

For Purdue to barely hold on to No. 1, fighting past Davidson with a misfiring offense 69-61. Take away Zach Edey and Caleb Furst and the rest of the lineup went 5-for-34. It leaves one wondering what happens to the Boilermakers the night Edey gets into foul trouble. Then again, since he has only 20 fouls in 11 games — four fewer than blocked shots — maybe that’s not a big worry.

For No. 5 Houston to show the Alabama loss was just a speed bump. Facing its highest-ranked opponent in the regular season in nearly 15 years, the Cougars missed their first six shots to fall behind 9-0 but then dominated the rest of the way to down No. 2 Virginia 69-61.

For No. 8 Kansas to show its title defense is alive and well, never mind have many faces are gone from the national champions, taking apart No. 14 Indiana 84-62 by forcing 23 turnovers with 17 steals and mashing the Hoosiers in the paint 50-24. Since losing 64-50 to Tennessee, the Jayhawks have won four games by an average of 27 points, scoring 89 a night.

For No. 15 Gonzaga to remind it hasn’t gone anywhere after a flurry of defeats pushed it out of the top 10, shooting 74 percent in the second half to down No. 4 Alabama 100-90. That made the Zags 7-1 against top-5 opponents in the regular season since 2018-19. 

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For No. 9 Arizona to confirm its place among the elite by beating No. 6 Tennessee 75-70, helped in no small part by a 24-8 gap at the free-throw line. That’s one reason the Wildcats could be outscored 29-0 in bench points and go 5-for-24 from behind the 3-point arc and still win. (Though for free-throw imbalance of the day, maybe the year and possibly the decade, there were Arizona’s neighbors at Northern Arizona. The Lumberjacks lost 106-101 at Southern Utah Saturday after shooting 30 fewer free throws and being outscored 42-13 at the line).

For North Carolina to perhaps come up with the shot that turns it all around. Pete Nance’s jumper at the buzzer saved the Tar Heels a fifth loss and sent them into overtime, where they put away Ohio State.

But nobody is rattling the landscape at the moment quite like Connecticut. Good thing for the Big East, because this has been a very odd early season.

Villanova starts out 2-5, for the first time in 31 years.

Creighton jumps out 6-0 and climbs to No. 7, then drops its next six, the Bluejays’ longest losing streak this century.

Georgetown loses to neighbor American for the first time in 40 years . . . DePaul is blown away by Northwestern 83-45, the most lopsided game in the history of the Chicagoland series . . . Siena beats Seton Hall for its first win over a Big East opponent in 19 seasons.

Then again, Villanova has won four in a row and is shooting better, Xavier’s three defeats were by a combined 13 points to all ranked opponents, St. John’s is 11-1 and Marquette positively buried Baylor while pushing Purdue and Mississippi State — two of the other unbeatens — to the buzzer.

But Big East starts with Connecticut at the top right now. Maybe soon, the nation, too. 

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