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    Tuesday, February 27, 2024

    UConn begins quest for fifth national championship on Saturday

    UConn sophomore Jordan Hawkins leaves after a news conference in preparation for the NCAA Final Four on Thursday in Houston. The Huskies will face Miami in the national semifinals on Saturday night. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
    UConn head coach Dan Hurley is all smiles while speaking to the media on Thursday in Houston, home of the NCAA Final Four. The Huskies play Miami on Saturday night in the national semifinals. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
    UConn junior forward Adama Sanogo takes part in a Thursday press conference in Houston, site of the NCAA Final Fouir. The Huskies face Miami on Saturday night in the national semifinals. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

    Houston― The UConn men’s basketball team arrived Wednesday night as the favorite to win the national championship.

    It makes sense given the program’s impressive resume this season and that the rest of the NCAA Final Four field includes first-time participants Miami, San Diego State and Florida Atlantic.

    The Huskies are playing on the final weekend of the college basketball season for the sixth time, but the first since defeating Kentucky in the 2014 NCAA championship game before 79,238 at AT&T Stadium, home of the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys.

    With four national titles, all since 1999, UConn is considered the lone college basketball blue blood still standing.

    The Huskies stormed through their first four March Madness games, winning by an average of 22.5 points. They’re riding a wave of momentum into Saturday’s national semifinal against Miami starting at 8:49 p.m. at NRG Stadium, which seats over 72,000.

    But they don’t want to hear about being a popular choice to bring home their fifth NCAA title.

    “I saw a little stat that we’re 58 percent to win the thing,” senior Nahiem Alleyne said. “That doesn’t matter. Any team can win here. All the teams that got to this point got here for a reason. They’re one of the best teams in the country.”

    When the regular season started in November, the Huskies weren’t even in the conversation about national championship contenders.

    They’re still carrying a boulder-sized chip on their shoulder from being left out of the Associated Press Preseason Top 25 poll in mid-October and being picked to finish fourth in the Big East Conference.

    They felt underappreciated and overlooked.

    “That’s obviously what they’re going to say,” said junior Andre Jackson about his team’s favored status. “We just beat the last two teams (Gonzaga and Arkansas) by a big margin, now they’re going to say we’re the favorites.

    “But before that nobody cared about us. That’s why we go out and play that way because we know in the preseason, in the Big East, they didn’t have us in the top three. Preseason, they didn’t have us in the top 25.”

    Given the program’s makeover since last season, with eight new players joining the program, it’s fair to say the Huskies exceeded expectations, at least from those from outside the program. UConn is 29-8 in head coach Dan Hurley’s fifth season, the most overall wins since the 2013-14 national championship season.

    The first hint that this could be a special season came at the Phil Knight Invitational, a tournament in Portland, Ore., in late November.

    UConn knocked off Oregon, Alabama, which eventually earned the No. 1 ranking in the country, and Iowa State to capture the tournament title. The Huskies just kept on winning, remaining unbeaten through 14 games and rising to as high as No. 2 in the AP Top 25.

    “That was the first step to us really believing,” redshirt freshman Alex Karaban said.

    Then adversity hit.

    UConn went into a freefall as it entered Big East play on Dec. 31, dropping six of eight games. The Huskies plummeted in the polls and lost their defensive edge.

    Hurley admitted that he spent too much time fighting with game officials.

    “It distracted me from coaching and it had a negative effect on the team,” he said. “I was on the phone with the head of officials more than watching film. It was a mistake.”

    Something had to be done to halt the slide.

    UConn held a team meeting to hash out its issues after a home loss to St. John’s on Jan. 15 that Hurley called unexplainable.

    “We just had a man-to-man conversation,” sophomore Jordan Hawkins said. “We decided to be real with ourselves. We knew we didn’t want to be in the same position that we were last year. So we had to look ourselves in the mirror and take that big leap that we had to take.”

    The Huskies gradually improved from there.

    Now they look almost unbeatable, overwhelming teams with superior talent and depth. Junior Adama Sanogo, Hawkins and Jackson have provided the star power and valuable leadership.

    They finished the regular season ranked in the top 10 (No. 10) for the first time since the 2010-2011 national championship season and have won 13 of their last 15 games.

    Arguably the most important game during that stretch was an 87-63 victory over Iona in the first round of the NCAA tournament on March 17 in Albany, N.Y. It lifted an enormous burden, pushing UConn into the second round following back-to-back first round exits in 2021 and 2022.

    Now with four straight NCAA tourney victories, the Huskies are one win away from playing for the program’s fifth national title.

    Hurley is quick to remind his players to stick to the script and block out any outside chatter about being favored to cut the nets down on Monday night.

    “The struggles during Big East play is a great reminder and something that we can reflect on that if we get away from our identity – the hardest playing team on the court, play defense at an elite level, move the ball offensively and win the rebounding – we’re as vulnerable as anyone else,” he said. “We’ve already experienced it.

    “We were not a ranked team in the preseason. That was something that we utilized a lot early on. I guess it’s harder now because we’ve had a great season to this point. But we didn’t set out this season with a goal to go to the Final Four. It’s an incredible accomplishment, but we want to play for a national championship on Monday.”

    g.keefe@theday.com

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