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Mike Lopresti | | March 30, 2023

A long journey has UConn as 'The Team to Beat' entering the Final Four

The Huskies steamrolled their way to the Final Four, and flew home with some hardware

HOUSTON — The Team To Beat, theoretically anyway, is in the house.

The Connecticut Huskies sit in their locker room Thursday after practice at the NRG Stadium. There are subway sandwiches and salad and fruit and cookies on the table, a video game in the corner. The sign on the door that will be staring at them as they leave to take the floor Saturday night: The Road Ends Here.

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Nahiem Alleyne, one of the key players off the bench who makes this team so deep and dangerous, is discussing the Connecticut past, with its four national championships since 1999.

“We’re trying to be a part of history,” Alleyne is saying. “We’re trying to be on the wall like those other guys.”

A couple of lockers away, Andrew Hurley, the son of coach of coach Dan Hurley, is trying to describe what all this means to him, and his father.

“My first memory is watching One Shining Moment.  That was one thing every single year that we’ve done for as long as I can remember, watching that together after the championship game. One of our biggest dreams is not only to be in the spot that we’re in but to be part of that video.

“I think that everybody in here understands what this means. It’s not just a trophy and a ring, everybody here wants to cement themselves in UConn history. It feels like when you go into these games you’re not just playing for the locker room, you’re playing for the guys who came before you. You’re bringing all that with you.”

This Final Four’s cast is three rookies and a steamroller. Florida Atlantic, Miami, San Diego State... they’re all savoring the buzz of making it for the first time — the 96th, 97th and 98th programs to get to this stage, blowing past big names to do it. “You look around and you see how many seats there are... wow, I’m going to be here? Wow,” Florida Atlantic’s Vladislav Goldin marveled after practice Thursday.

Except history says the music is about to stop. Only 13 of 95 teams have won the national championship in their maiden Final Four and most of those were back in the 1940s when everyone was making it for the first time.  Fact is, the only team to accomplish it in the past 56 years was... well, Connecticut.

That was 24 years and four national championships ago. Now the Huskies are back as The Team To Beat. On paper, anyway. Even if they are the only cold-weather program in town and, unlike the other three, can’t claim their home area as a vacation destination. “I don’t think there’s a beach in Connecticut. I’ve never seen it,” said Jordan Hawkins, who has been torching defenses from the outside all month. “A little jealous, I’ll say that.”

The Team To Beat has led all four of its NCAA Tournament games by at least 18 points and been behind in the second half only 38 seconds. The Team To Beat has lost two games since January, by two and three points. The Team To Beat is allowing only 35.4 shooting the past two weeks and has one more assist than its tournament opponents have field goals.

The Team To Beat pummels the opposition as a committee. Know how many Connecticut Huskies have been Big East player of the week since Thanksgiving? None. “We know what it takes to win,” said guard Andre Jackson Jr., who has 31 assists in four tournament games.  “It’s not just about the glory, who gets the points, whatever. It’s about us going as a team, and we all know that.”

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Plus, they have been carefully constructed with extra pieces added. “Last year the lack of depth caught up,” Hurley said. Alleyne for instance. He scored 28 points in an NCAA Tournament game two years ago. For Virginia Tech. “We’re able to play at a pretty relentless fashion,” Hurley said of the deeper Huskies.

The Team To Beat wasn’t even ranked when the season began but sent up a warning flare, starting 14-0. Then came the baffling retreat of six losses in eight games. Hurley was saying Thursday that he has refined his answer about what happened, since he’s been asked about it so often lately.

“Our defense tanked. We went from an elite defensive team, we didn’t guard anybody for two weeks. So we got soft. We get away from our identity. I think part of it was the Big East got us. Our top five was better than any other conference’s top five. I started fighting with the refs and it distracted me from coaching and it had a negative effect on the team. I was on the phone with the head of officials more than I was watching film. It was a mistake. So it was multiple things. But I wouldn't underestimate just scheduling getting us.

 “But we left that behind.”

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The Team To Beat rejoined the Big East in 2020, and now could give the league even more gravitas. Should the Huskies accomplish their mission in Houston, that would be four Big East national champions in the past 10 tournaments. The Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC have had none combined.

The Team To Beat has a post player who has been muscling through March, averaging 20 points and nearly 10 rebounds per tournament game, lately on an empty stomach. Adama Sanogo, a Muslim, has been observing Ramadan, meaning he must fast from dawn to sunset. “The game is at 7:49 and I think I will be able to eat at 7:40,” he said about Saturday. “So that’s like eight minutes before the game. Coconut water and oranges. I think I’ll be fine.”

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The Team To Beat has been hearing from UConn’s glorious past. Jim Calhoun, the coach for three of the champions. “He’s the G.O.A.T.,” Hawkins said. “When he talks, you listen.” Richard Hamilton, the Most Outstanding Player of the 1999 Final Four spoke to the Huskies this very day.

The Team To Beat has a coach from a basketball family who arrived five years ago understanding the hill to climb.

“You don’t go to a place like UConn,” Hurley said, “unless you have motivation to be challenged at the absolute highest level as a coach and as a player, because you’re going to be graded against the greatest coaches and players to play college basketball in the last 25 years.

“You’ve got to have the stomach to handle that. You’ve got to have the toughness, the self-belief as players and coaches to want to put yourself in a situation where if you’re not getting to Final Fours and not competing at the top of the Big East, you’re failing.”

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So here Connecticut is, the only program who has been here before. Not that there isn’t danger from these first timers.  Miami comes next and there are several things to notice about the Hurricanes.

The high seeds of the Midwest region were utterly unable to slow them down. They just rolled through — in order — No. 4 Indiana, No. 1 Houston and No. 2 Texas, scoring 85, 89 and 88 points. “Everybody had us losing to all these teams,” Miami guard Jordan Miller said. “So we’re fine with being the underdogs we’ve been all year.”

They have not spent one day this season ranked in the top-10 of the Associated Press poll, but have beaten five teams who were.

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Jim Larranaga has now coached two different programs — George Mason and Miami — to their first Final Fours. The only other men who did that were Hugh Durham for Florida State and Georgia and Forddy Anderson for Bradley and Michigan State, and we’re talking 40 years ago for Durham and 66 years ago for Anderson.

There is not one native Floridian on the Miami roster. The starting lineup comes from New Jersey, Virginia, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Nicaragua. ACC player of the year Isaiah Wong, the New Jersey native, visited only two schools while being recruited. Miami was one. The other was Connecticut. “Heartbreaking distant second,” Hurley said of that recruiting race. Wong’s first and second choices now meet. “It’s a small world,” he said Thursday.

The day Larranaga worked the first game of his career as a college head coach — at American International in 1977 — Dan Hurley was four years old. Now they meet in a Final Four, a 73-year-old grandfather and the emotional Huskie coach who has been known to shed a tear.

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In the locker room of The Team To Beat, Alleyne talked of the majesty of UConn's past. That’s one reason he transferred there. “The capital of college basketball,” he called it, especially if you throw in the women's program as well.

But the past won’t play defense this weekend. And besides, since when did pedigree mean anything in the 2023 NCAA Tournament?

“Nothing is set in stone for us,” Alleyne said. “We haven’t won one.”

Not yet anyway.

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