Bubble, schmubble. Huskies find their salvation in Newark
It is rare throughout history, in and out of sports, for anybody to suggest they found their salvation in Newark. Not exactly the place that inspired, you know, purple mountain majesties.
But it was at the Prudential Center on Wednesday night that the UConn Huskies could find a frame of reference for the rest of the season. As in: Win this one and it's bubble schmubble. The Huskies would be in. Time to talk NCAA seeding and perhaps winning the Big East Tournament, not about mere entry.
And this was, quite happily for loyalists of State U, a night when the hype didn't match the product. Seton Hall, the allegedly more desperate opponent, all but no-showed, paving the way for UConn to not merely go dancing, but to ponder a rhumba perhaps a few weekends into March.
The Huskies exited Newark with a 69-58 win, locking in a third-place finish within the league. In future years, finishing third will have the fanbase chugging Mylanta. For now, though, they're toasting Dan Hurley with something stronger.
"I don't mind the bubble. The bubble doesn't bother me," Hurley said after Wednesday's game. "I don't even want to talk about that. Looking where we were that March-April when we came in, being 179-180 in (metric) KenPom and looking the different programs we were sandwiched between. Now in year three, going up in weight and a chance to go potentially 11-6 (in the league), having us back in NCAA Tournament ... We recruited the right guys, developed them, built a culture ... it's program building. What Dave (athletic director David Benedict) hired me to do."
Wednesday's result ended a confusing few weeks to follow the program. Tournament talk, while intriguing, was also a bit of a mystery. Are they in? Are they out? Oy. Best we could tell, the answer shared a name with a leading product for incontinence: Depends.
It's all fiction, of course, unless you subscribe to the theory that the self-appointed bracketologists can read the minds of selection committee members. But it's sports. And if other fantasies have morphed into billion dollar industries – think fantasy baseball and football – debating the opinions of the bracketologists sure beats ditch digging to pass the time.
Joe Lunardi (ESPN) has them out. Mike DeCourcy (Fox) has them in. Jerry Palm (CBS) has them in. But who knows? Committee members must contemplate the vagaries of the COVID season, not to mention how the tournament selection process has taken to analytical morass in a synchronized swan dive with baseball.
In the old days, two questions would separate contenders and pretenders: Whom did you beat and where did you beat them? Ah, but then that would be too simple, especially for the people taking over this country: Those who want to turn math class into a holy day of obligation.
Now there is NET, SOS, BPI, KPI, KenPom, Sagarin, Quad 1, Quad 2, four calling birds and three French hens. And we're all supposed to keep this straight. Turns out the best route is still the oldest, once uttered rather famously by the late Al Davis: Just win, baby.
That's what UConn did Wednesday night.
"We told the guys it would be similar to the Villanova game, a hard road test," Hurley said. "We needed to learn our lessons from that game and stay steady through the runs they'd make."
It wasn't "runs" as in plural. It was "run" as in singular. The Pirates started strong and then went into witness protection.
Seton Hall defeated UConn earlier this year with James Bouknight out and with the Huskies coming off a COVID pause. Turns out the lessons learned without Bouknight are helping in ways perhaps none of us saw coming.
Hurley called it a "blessing in disguise."
Now it gets fun. They can play free and easy, knowing that regardless of the outcome at the World's Most Famous Arena next week, they're in the tournament. Doubtful anybody would really want to see them either.
"Besides the hammering home the point over the next couple of days not becoming complacent," Hurley said, "then obviously, as we head to tournament time, the stakes are raised. People are literally playing for their lives or for their careers for the older players. We're just going to stick to the script."
This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro
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