UConn is the team to beat in March Madness' Final Four — and the Huskies know it

LAS VEGAS — It was the middle of January in 2020 and another miserable winter was at hand for UConn, a program stuck in a conference it didn’t want to be a part of and playing a brand of basketball that wasn’t familiar to anyone who had seen Jim Calhoun’s teams shove their way past the Dukes and Kentuckys to reach the top of the sport.

Between losses to Wichita State and Houston, the Huskies played a non-conference game at old rival Villanova. They played well enough to win that night but lost by six, a common theme of Dan Hurley’s early rebuilding years.

Afterwards, Hurley issued a warning: “People better get us now,” he said. “It’s coming.”

Now it’s here.

Parity in college basketball, huh? UConn didn’t get the memo.

All those close calls, all those middling years in the wilderness of the American Athletic Conference suddenly seem far away in the rear-view mirror. In his fifth season at UConn, Hurley doesn’t just have the Huskies back in the Final Four, he has them playing in a way that should earn them the school’s fifth national title.

In a year where all the championship favorites and regular season stars fell by the wayside during this topsy-turvy NCAA tournament, UConn heads to Houston with the look of an overwhelming bully after destroying Arkansas and Gonzaga in the West Regional.

“UConn is back,” Jordan Hawkins said after the Huskies' Elite Eight victory over Gonzaga.
“UConn is back,” Jordan Hawkins said after the Huskies' Elite Eight victory over Gonzaga.

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It’s not that the Huskies can’t be beaten. But the way they’re rolling through this bracket, best of luck to whoever stands in their path.

“We’ve got a lot of momentum going into the Final Four,” said Andre Jackson Jr., the Huskies’ do-everything wing. “I think we're the best team in the tournament and it's all about staying true to who we are.”

UConn has earned that swagger. The Huskies have completely dominated four NCAA tournament games, and the only team that has even proven capable of slowing them a little bit was Iona in the first half of their first-round matchup. UConn ended up winning by 24.

It’s not real complicated. UConn has good guards, versatile wings who can shoot and defend and a bevy of big men that can manhandle you (Adama Sanogo), tower over you (Donovan Clingan) or take you out to the perimeter and open up the floor with their shooting (Alex Karaban). And the Huskies aren’t afraid to tell you all about everything they can throw at you.

“When you play us for the first time, we’re very unique with what we have,” Hurley said. “With Adama and these wings and Clingan coming in at 7-foot-2 and the shooting off the bench, and we’re an elite defensive team and a top-five offensive team and we generally beat teams up on the glass. So when teams see us for the first time, it can be overwhelming.”

It’s not overconfidence if it’s true. And the results suggest that the Huskies indeed have the goods to go all the way.

“They have great size, depth, and their bigs are different so they bring different qualities,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Few, whose team wasn’t particularly close to competitive in an 82-54 loss. “And what’s really hard is the short prep for them if they get through (the semifinal) because there's just so much they do. It’s a lot.”

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For much of this season, UConn has been carrying disrespect around like a cudgel. The Huskies weren’t ranked in the preseason USA TODAY Sports Coaches Poll. They were picked fourth in the Big East. They fell off the radar after a tough stretch in January when they lost six of eight games and weren’t a particularly popular pick to reach the Final Four.

But that’s all going to change next week.

“UConn is back,” said Jordan Hawkins, the Huskies’ 3-point sniper who buried six triples against the Zags.

Despite Hurley's bravado three years ago, it took winning Saturday for UConn to say that officially. It took leaving the AAC for the Big East, where UConn could regularly face some of its traditional basketball rivals rather than an ill-fitting league that was built for football convenience. And it took a lot more heartbreak, including first-round tournament exits the past two years, for Hurley to truly feel like the Huskies were living up to the standards that the program expected.

He admitted Saturday it was harder than he thought it would be.

"The history and tradition, it helps you in recruiting,” Hurley said. “We sold it to these guys that we had done it here before (and) we can do it again, but it becomes a little bit of a mental hurdle. Like the early rounds of NCAA tournament where you feel like maybe the burden of history and tradition in first- and second-round games. When you coach at Rhode Island, you’re not always getting everyone’s best shot. When you’re at UConn, you get the other team’s best shot every night. So the climb to get to this point has been real, and it’s been more challenging than I thought.”

But now the ultimate spoils of that journey are just two wins away. In a college basketball season where it has often felt like anything can happen on a given night, UConn laying waste to opponent after opponent has suddenly given us a counter-narrative.

If not UConn, then who?

“It’s the biggest shoes in the entire country to fill to play for this university,” Jackson said. "Great history, great players, great coaching, championships on both sides, men’s and women’s. It feels great to make it this far, but we know what the UConn standard is. And this isn’t far enough.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: UConn heads to NCAA Tournament's Final Four as clear title favorite