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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Can the dominant UConn repeat? Many have tried, many have failed

BOSTON — It wasn’t long after the UConn Huskies cut down the nets in Houston last April that Dan Hurley started thinking about the 2023-24 season. And it was going to be a season unlike any Hurley had ever experienced, as coach of the reigning national champion.

Naturally, he reached out to the last guy to successfully navigate a back-to-back national championship push: Billy Donovan.

“He said don’t make it about that,” Hurley said. “Don’t chase a repeat. Improve in the offseason as a coach, serve your players well, stick to the formula. Don’t pursue the achievement. Just do a great job … and let the chips fall where they may. But don’t obsess over that accomplishment or else it’s going to make you crazy.”

Hurley and UConn have cruised into the Elite Eight and have the best chance to repeat as men’s national champions since Donovan did it with the Florida Gators in 2006 and 2007. The Huskies are the first reigning champion to make it past the Sweet 16 since the Gators in 2007 and they’re doing it in a more dominant fashion than last season.

Their 82-52 win over San Diego State on Thursday was the biggest margin of victory in a Sweet 16 game since 2017, and they’ve won their three NCAA tournament games by an average of 28.7 points. They’ve trailed for a total of 28 seconds and have led by double digits for 58:27 of a possible 60 second-half minutes.

While the Huskies established themselves early on as the title favorites, they’re aware of the not-so-successful history of reigning national champions.

“The way the defending champs have fared in recent history, it’s kind of been against the odds in terms of the season we’re having following up the national championship,” Hurley said after Thursday’s win.

“This team has defied what past champions have done, and taken this program to a completely different level.”

UConn isn’t running from the spotlight.

“We’ve been getting everybody’s best shot all year,” senior guard Hassan Diarra said a day earlier. “We walk with the confidence of being the No. 1 overall seed and we understand it’s a privilege to do that.”

‘You guys have to go back up the mountain again’

In the 2006-07 offseason, Donovan was looking for ways to convey a clear message to his team, most of whom had returned, including all five starters: This season is a new season. This season is not last season.

He brought in renowned sports sociologist Harry Edwards and former New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who had won back-to-back Super Bowls in 2003 and 2004.

Edwards drew a mountain with a basketball at the top.

“The quicker you realize that the ball has rolled all the way back down the mountain and you’re starting off just like everyone else, 0-0,” Donovan recalled Edwards saying. “The idea of defending national champions … you’re not defending anything. You already won that one. This is totally new.

“You guys have to go back up the mountain again. And you can’t go back up the mountain the same way.”

Belichick, meanwhile, showed the team a horse race. He provided the background and statistics of each horse, the jockeys and the previous finishes. And as the horses entered the stretch run, Belichick paused the race and asked a simple question: Which horse is going to win — the one wearing yellow, the one who previously won a big race, the one with a certain jockey?

None of the above.

“It’s the horse that runs the fastest,” Belichick said, according to Donovan. “The horses have no idea what’s going on. You better put your head down and run the race.”

Almost 20 years later, it still resonates with Donovan’s former players.

“Coach Donovan kept us focused,” said Taurean Green, a starting guard on both of the Florida title teams. “He would do a great job of bringing us right back to reality and just keeping us in the moment.”

“It put some stuff into perspective for those guys,” Donovan added. “They were fearless. They went for it.”

‘It’s mental fatigue more than anything’

UConn isn’t the first team to win a national championship and find itself as the favorite to run it back the following season. The Duke Blue Devils won the title in 2010 and were a 1-seed in 2011. The Villanova Wildcats won championships in 2016 and 2018 and were a 1-seed in the year between those titles. More recently, the Baylor Bears were a 1-seed the season after winning the 2021 championship and the Kansas Jayhawks were a 1-seed last season after winning it all in 2022.

But all four fell well short of going back-to-back, with Duke the only one of that group to even get out of the NCAA tournament’s first weekend.

“It’s mental fatigue more than anything,” former Villanova coach Jay Wright told ESPN. “Every game you play during the regular season, every game the opponent is playing the national champion. Even if there’s new guys on your team, they feel that pressure, they feel that it’s their opponent’s biggest game.”

Baylor coach Scott Drew had similar sentiments on how difficult it is to overcome the fact that every opponent is circling the game on their calendar.

“You have to have a lot of things go your way to win a national championship,” Drew said. “It’s hard enough to do it with getting a team back that’s talented enough and is on the same page enough to win it all, but then also dealing with everybody’s best shot and the added pressure that goes in. But most of all, you’ve got to stay injury-free and that’s hard to do in today’s game as well.”

Donovan dealt with the same issues during the second national championship season. And it caught up to the Gators down the stretch of the regular season, when they lost three of four games in SEC play, all on the road. He recalled opposing student sections getting into the arena 90 minutes before games all season to yell at and provoke his team.

“I had to change a lot of stuff,” he said. “It was the Super Bowl in our conference. I said, ‘All those student sections are waiting for you — we ain’t coming out.’ We wouldn’t come out until there were 30 minutes on the clock. They can sit there for an hour and a half. But warm up like you’re ready to go win this thing.”

Perhaps it was because Florida brought all five starters back from its first national championship team, but the Gators seemed to take pride in being the enemy and having a target on their back.

“We loved challenges, man,” Green said. “We loved the pressure. We were competitive. We loved it. We had the ‘us against the world’ mentality. We thrived and we embraced it and we were never scared of the movement.”

Depth is the difference



How Dan Hurley has gotten his players to buy in at UConn

UConn coach Dan Hurley discusses his team’s NCAA tournament journey so far and how he gets his players to buy into his tough coaching.

So can UConn do it? Can the Huskies become the first team in almost 20 years to win back-to-back national championships and further etch themselves into college basketball lore?

Wright thinks so.

“What I see in Connecticut that’s different is their depth,” he said. “I think the mental fatigue caught up to us in the tournament. … Their depth can minimize that mental fatigue. They had guys get injured during the year, and they seem more fresh mentally to me than we were at that point and they have more depth than we did.”

It’s a completely different team from a year ago, which has helped maintain some of that hunger. Gone are stars Adama Sanogo, Jordan Hawkins and Andre Jackson Jr., replaced by star transfer Cam Spencer and potential first-round draft picks Donovan Clingan and Stephon Castle.

“A lot of those returners came back wanting to go do it again and help the new guys experience a national championship,” Spencer said Thursday.

“If you’re competitive, which I definitely know UConn is, you’re not going to mentally relax,” Wright said. “You’re going to take on every challenge throughout the regular season, which UConn did.”

Donovan pointed out one of the most eye-opening stats from his two championship teams: The Gators were 18-0 in elimination games over those two seasons, winning every SEC tournament game and NCAA tournament game. UConn won’t match that — it lost in the Big East tournament semifinals last season — but the Huskies have since rattled off 12 straight elimination-game wins, including the 2024 Big East tournament championship and then dominating all three of this year’s NCAA tournament opponents.

Hurley has spent almost a year making sure his team understands that last season’s championship means nothing for this year’s team.

“We’re not going to be able to trade that in for anything tomorrow night versus the team we faced last year in the finals, but we bring the confidence,” he said before Thursday’s game. “We believe. We think we’re supposed to win these games.”

What’s left? A little history and a big legacy. And three more games.

“We have ‘we’ guys,” Hurley said after Thursday’s win. “These guys right now are leaving a legacy in a place that’s hard to leave a legacy.”

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