Repeat that again: UConn in rare company with back-to-back national championships

ByPete Thamel ESPN logo
Tuesday, April 9, 2024

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- UConn's national title game blowout of Purdue on Monday night didn't unfold with a thunderclap run, a singular herculean effort or a defining moment.

It unfolded as a fitting tribute to the historic team that executed it -- a suffocating defense that gradually cut off the oxygen from the Boilermakers'backcourt, a balanced offense with four double-digit scorers and a defensive game plan executed with precision.

A flurry of bright lights led coach Dan Hurley and the Huskies to their shining moment, as UConn won back-to-back national championships and delivered the school's sixth title, all since 1999.

And as No. 1 overall seed UConn tidily dispatched fellow 1-seed Purdue 75-60, the Huskies completed another dramaless NCAA tournament game, securing a record 12th consecutive double-digit win in the Big Dance.

The tensionless second half left the greater college basketball world with only one remaining drama to ponder: Where does this two-year UConn run rank among the all-time repeat performers in the sport? And should this UConn team be considered among the all-time greats?

UConn finished this tournament winning its six games by an average of 23.3 points. The 140 combined points they won those six games by blows away the next most dominant title winner, which wasNorth Carolinawinning by a total of 125 in 2009.

"I just think it's the best two-year run, I think, in a very, very long time just because of everything we lost from last year's team," Hurley said. "To lose that much and, again, to do what we did again, it's got to be as impressive a two-year run as a program's had since prior to whoever did it beforeDuke."

UConn's title team in 2023 won by an average of 20 points per game or 120 total points. UConn lost five of its top eight scorers from that team. And perhaps the most compelling argument for the singular dominance of this run is that the teams UConn did it with were completely different, indicative of the distinctly different era they achieved it in. The previous two teams to go back-to-back before UConn were Billy Donovan's Florida squads in 2006 and 2007 and Mike Krzyzewski's Duke teams in 1991 and 1992.

"To me, it is more impressive than what Florida and Duke did because they brought back their entire teams," Hurley said. "We lost some major players."

Despite different personnel and different eras, UConn displayed unprecedented dominance. No other team in NCAA history has won all six NCAA tournament games by 13 or more. UConn did it back-to-back.

So, where should we consider this UConn run in the history of the NCAA tournament? Comparing teams and eras is tricky, as the paradigms of player retention and the length of time players stay in school have changed significantly.

It's certain UConn is at least among the generational greats, as the scope of its dominance within its era is unmatched.

Would UConn beat the Florida teams with Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer? Those debates are for Final Four barstools in perpetuity, but it's impossible to argue that these Huskies proved consistently better in the NCAA tournament than those Gators teams did in their era.

Is UConn better than the Duke teams led by Bobby Hurley --the brother of the Huskies' coach -- and Krzyzewski? That debate is for the Hurley family Thanksgiving table, but that comparison is difficult because the Blue Devils had eight players on the 1992 roster who eventually were drafted.

"I can't say anything about Duke because I'm going to piss my brother off," Dan Hurley said. "But I guess I can say stuff about Florida. But I love Billy Donovan. So, I'm in a bad spot."

What has separated UConn and will catapult this run among the greats is that it hasn't been defined by a star player or a rigid system.

Instead, it has played with a steady fire, a relentlessness that matches how its coach pleads with the referees and a crispness that doesn't fluctuate with the ebbs of the scoreboard.

"Not everyone can do what they just did," Boilermakers coach Matt Painter said, referencing the canceling of Purdue's guard play.

This UConn team won withTristen Newton's creativity,Cam Spencer's verve,Stephon Castle's defensive mettle,Alex Karaban's versatility andDonovan Clingan's looming presence. It won with backup center Samson Johnson converting lobs and backup guard Hassan Diarra scoring nine points on Monday night, critical contributions when the game was still a game.

Clingan and Castle are projected in the top 20 of this year's NBA draft as UConn's only surefire first-round picks and maybe the only draft picks on this roster. Perhaps what will define this UConn team when history reflects on it is that the sum ended up better than the collection of high-end parts.

Collectively, the Huskies were a hammer that just kept pounding opponents into submission. They eliminated Purdue's perimeter offense, pulled away thanks to 14 offensive rebounds and shared the ball enough for 18 assists on their 30 baskets. They scored out of timeouts with consistency, didn't flinch when teams made runs and never wavered when the stakes got higher and higher.

Much of that unflappability can go back to Hurley, who now has his name alongside some of the greats in the sport. Along with Donovan and Krzyzewski, the only other coaches to win back-to-back NCAA titles are John Wooden (UCLA), Ed Jucker (Cincinnati), Phil Woolpert (San Francisco), Adolph Rupp (Kentucky) and Henry Iba (Oklahoma State).

And UConn has a strong claim that the program has been the best in college basketball over the last generation, with its six titles coming in the past 25 years. While other programs have been more consistent over that quarter century, none has won at that high of a level.

UConn athletic director David Benedict called it a "historic program" and said there's an appreciation for how UConn endured through three straight NCAA tournament misses from 2017 to 2019.

"To bring it back in the fashion that we did and be in a situation where you went from winning four national championships, having a long hiatus, which I think there were a lot of people that might've written us off for good," Benedict said. "And so for us, for our coaches, for our fans, I think this is a very proud day."

A day that pushes UConn into a debate with some of the greatest runs in the history of the sport.

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