UConn’s desire to dominate is a sight to behold

0
20


Follow live coverage as UConn, Purdue play for the national championship today

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Hassan Diarra brought his hand to his mouth, checking for blood. Alabama’s Rylan Griffen had caught him with a swinging elbow on a move to the basket in the waning moments of a game already decided. Now Diarra was on the court, hoping no teeth were jarred loose. The shot to the head mightn’t have been so bad if Diarra weren’t defending this meaningless possession as if his entire life depended on it. But he was.

The Connecticut bench erupted in joy as Diarra got up, finding a smear of red upon his hand. Dan Hurley, his coach, walked onto the floor, smiling proudly. He put his palms on both sides of Diarra’s still-rattling skull and yelled in his face. He asked Diarra if he was OK.

“But, like, sarcastically,” Diarra clarified later. “He knew I was fine.”

Diarra went to the end of the bench, bent over, and rested his face into a large white towel. By now there were specks of red splatter on his jersey. He wasn’t looking at the court as the horn sounded and his fellow Huskies high-fived, and casually went through the handshake line as if it is a perfectly normal feat to win a national semifinal in the NCAA Tournament and secure a place in the national championship game.

As if it’s perfectly rational that the team that was supposed to be the team after the team is two days away from possibly winning UConn’s second straight title and sixth since 1999. A mega-matchup with Purdue awaits. The Huskies are already favored by 6.5 points.

It’s still not sinking in how stunning this all is. Nearly two years ago, early in the 2022 offseason, Hurley sat down with top returnees Adama Sanogo, Andre Jackson Jr. and Jordan Hawkins. He told them the following season’s team was in their hands. It was a pact, of sorts, among the coach and the players, and they’d eventually deliver one of the great runs in a program built on great runs. Their 2023 national title tied UConn with Duke and Indiana in the annals. A sixth would stand alongside North Carolina. Only Kentucky’s eight and UCLA’s 11 remain in the distance.

Then Sanogo, Jackson and Hawkins moved on, along with sharpshooter Joey Calcaterra and Nahiem Alleyne, a tough guard averaging nearly 20 minutes per game.

UConn, in theory, would struggle to replace them, even with a returning core of 2022-23 starters Tristen Newton and Alex Karaban, and budding stud big man Donovan Clingan. There’d surely be a natural regression. The great teams in college basketball history that have repeat national championships typically returned mostly intact.

But this is Connecticut. And Connecticut for some reason operates only with audacity. So now once again it’s almost the first Monday in April and the Huskies are not only here again, but are somehow better.

Alabama played about as well as anyone has against the Huskies of late. It still lost 86-72. Last weekend’s virtuoso Elite Eight win over Illinois finished with five UConn players in double figures, about as beautifully balanced basketball imaginable on the game’s biggest stage. On Saturday the Huskies did it again — all five starters scored between 12 and 21 points. Stephon Castle, traditionally the roster’s fifth-leading scorer, was top dog.

GO DEEPER

Why is UConn so unbeatable? The Huskies’ fifth option is a five-star freshman

But it was the other end, one could argue, where the game was won. The Huskies weren’t focused on limiting Bama’s made 3s, but instead focused on limiting the Tide’s attempts. You can’t make ’em if you don’t shoot ’em. Nate Oats’ team entered Saturday ranked fourth nationally in 3-point attempts per game, and second with 11.2 makes. Trying to curb those attempts is no small task. Blink and Bama has a shot up. UConn wanted every defensive possession to be hard-wired — identifying shooters, switching screens, going over the top of screens.

Alabama finished with 11 made 3s on Saturday, but came up seven shy of its normal volume of attempts, getting up 23. UConn defenders spent all 40 minutes desperately closing out on the perimeter, running Bama shooters off the line, and relying on Clingan and 6-foot-10 Samson Johnson to protect the paint. The two ended up combining for six blocks shots, and Bama went 15-of-35 on 2-point attempts. Well-executed, winning basketball. Again.


UConn coach Dan Hurley checks in with Hassan Diarra late in Saturday’s win over Alabama. (Christian Petersen / Getty Images)

What UConn is doing can’t be appreciated or lauded enough. It can’t really even be totally understood, but there are, as assistant coach Luke Murray put it, “these snapshots of a season, when you don’t know what’s going to happen later, that ended up showing you where a team really come from.”

Back in the early fall, the Huskies left campus for a closed-door scrimmage against a Virginia team that would be unranked in the preseason top 25. The first 20 minutes of the exhibition went as planned for the defending national champions. They outplayed Tony Bennett’s team, built a double-digit lead, then took a 10-minute break for a quasi-halftime.

The Huskies were feeling pretty good about themselves, like a team that knows what it’s like to ride on a parade float. Whatever it was, things turned in the next 20-minute session. Virginia hammered UConn (a sight that after the Cavs’ showing in the First Four this year feels almost comically unimaginable) by outscoring the defending champs by 16 points, according to those who were there.

“I think we knew that we had a starting five that was going to be as good as what anyone had in the sport,” Hurley said recently. “Then we got drilled in that second half. That was a real eye-opener, wake-up call there. We had a pretty good first half, then the second half we got smashed.”

A lot of coaches might love it — a big dose of humility for a team feeling good about itself.

Hurley?

He decidedly did not love it.

“I was seething,” he said. “You don’t know how the group’s going to respond. I mean, you don’t want to lose that bad. You don’t know if your team is good.”

Newton had as rough of go of it as anyone on the floor. Twenty bad minutes set the table for what would somehow become a season with him named as the 2024 Bob Cousy Award winner as the nation’s best point guard. He recalls it being the moment he and his teammates realized “that we were a new team.”

That team, of all teams, has set program records in wins (36), points (3,181) and assists (730), and won 18 Big East games by an average of 18.2 points. A year after winning six NCAA Tournament games by double-figures, averaging an 18.3-point margin of victory, this group has won five in double figures, averaging 24.4 points per beating.

There often seems to be something feral at work here. A made shot turns into a stop. Then another made shot. And another stop. And the walls start sweating. And another shot falls. Maybe a Karaban 3 from the top of the key. Or a Castle cutting from the corner for a dunk. Or a Clingan gimmie. Then another stop. You should see the UConn sideline. They foam from the mouth. Hurley and Kimani Young and Murray stop stomping their feet on the sideline and yell for more. There’s some old-school at UConn, so the Hurley & Co. aren’t out there in sweatsuits and sneakers. Dress shoes on hardwood shake the court.

Alabama hung around — admirably — for most of Saturday night, answering UConn’s runs over and over. No cowering. The game was tied with 12 minutes to go. It was a six-point game with eight minutes to go. Then it wasn’t. Ten turned into 15. The Tide broke.

They all have.

Because that’s the thing about the 2023-24 Huskies. As Murray puts it, if there’s a defining factor to this version of UConn, it’s this “maniacal feeling about winning games.” They thrive on hurting you.

They like the taste of blood.

(Top photo of UConn players celebrating in the second half: Ross D. Franklin / AP)





Source link

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here