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    Sunday, May 19, 2024

    Here’s how the UConn men pulled off the repeat feat

    UConn head coach Dan Hurley celebrates cutting the net after the NCAA college Final Four championship basketball game against Purdue, Monday, April 8, 2024, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
    UConn celebrates their win against Purdue in the NCAA college Final Four championship basketball game, Monday, April 8, 2024, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
    UConn guard Cam Spencer hugs UConn guard Stephon Castle (5) during the second half of the NCAA college Final Four championship basketball game against Purdue, Monday, April 8, 2024, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

    Back-to-back national championship winning celebrations are underway.

    The UConn basketball team received a hero’s welcome home at Gampel Pavilion on Wednesday night after returning from the Final Four in Arizona.

    Thousands of adoring fans will turn out Saturday in Hartford for the victory parade, which starts at 11 a.m. at the State Capitol building and ends in front of the XL Center on Trumbull Street.

    There will be a trip to the White House in UConn’s future, hometown celebrations for players and other public appearances.

    “It’s quite a lot of celebration, but I love it,” redshirt sophomore Alex Karaban, a member of last year’s title team. “The celebrations are worth it. It’s not often that I’ll be able to go to the White House twice. Throwing out first pitches is fun. I’ll be going back to Southborough (Mass.) and they’ll be calling me champ and stuff. It’s a blessing.

    “I love it. I love everything that comes with it. … I’m just happy that our team is going to get talked about forever.”

    Coach Dan Hurley started talking about trying to three-peat shortly after UConn beat Purdue on Monday in Glendale to capture the program’s sixth national title – all in the last 25 years.

    Sounds crazy, right?

    Well, a year ago, few people outside the UConn basketball family believed the Huskies would become the first team to win consecutive titles in 17 years after losing starters Adama Sanogo, Andre Jackson, Jr., and Jordan Hawkins to the NBA and seeing the departure of key veteran reserves Joey Calcaterra and Nahiem Alleyne.

    Let’s delve deeper into how the Huskies pulled off the repeat feat.

    Something to prove

    Hurley is just wired differently.

    Even after winning his first national title as a head coach in 2023, Hurley still felt he had something to prove.

    He talked about his mentality before UConn headed to the Final Four..

    “The thing that I thought about for me personally a lot, I know it sounds crazy, it was important for me to show my fan base and to show my players, just those type of people, that they’re not going to get some guy that’s going to rest on his laurels after winning one and he’s just gonna go and ring the bell at the stock exchange and hang with (President) Biden. And then he’s going to take a year off and do the honeymoon.

    “I’m an obsessed coach.”

    From the first preseason workout last summer, Hurley set a demanding tone and rooted out any hints of complacency.

    The Huskies responded and never let up.

    They lost just three games overall, only one from the end of December on. They topped last season’s accomplishment by winning a program record 37 games and Big East regular season and tournament titles.

    And they did it with an enormous target on their backs as the reigning national champion.

    “We had a bigger target on our back (than last season)…,” sophomore Donovan Clingan said. “It was really hard and we got every team’s best shot. That’s why this team is special.”

    Recruiting victories

    The coaching staff faced the challenge of rebuilding a roster that lost five of its top eight scorers and inspirational leaders in Jackson and Sanogo.

    Credit associate head coach Kimani Young, assistants Tom Moore and Luke Murray for finding the perfect fits in graduate transfer Cam Spencer and freshman Stephon Castle.

    UConn would have never cut down the nets at State Farm Stadium on Monday without those two newcomers’ contributions this season. Freshman reserves Jaylin Stewart and Solo Ball, members of a top five nationally-ranked recruiting class, also played important supporting roles.

    Spencer’s fiery personality, veteran leadership and all-around play were just what the Huskies needed. An All-Big East first team performer, he finished second on the team in scoring (14.3) and ranked among the top three point shooters in the country at 44 percent.

    Castle lived up to the hype that surrounded his arrival in Storrs, showing maturity, poise and a defensive prowess beyond his years. He averaged 11.1 points and 4.7 rebounds and earned All-Big East freshman of the year status.

    Both Castle and Spencer made the All-Final Four team.

    The addition of those talented newcomers to a returning championship core proved to be a lethal mix.

    “We had a good team,” Young said. “We had enough returners that knew what it took and we had some young and hungry guys as well. I think that balance along with coach (Hurley) driving us every day just led us to this point.”

    A championship formula

    Hurley stuck to a championship formula to build what he called a “bulletproof” team.

    He preached tireless effort, tenacious defense, relentless rebounding and an unselfish and balanced offense.

    The Huskies could win in a variety of different ways.

    “It’s our culture,” Castle said. “I feel like we’re super resilient. We’re trained to play a full 40 minutes. We worked harder than anybody else in the country. We just want to see if a team can keep up with us for 40 minutes. Eventually, they’ll break.”

    The Huskies rode the formula to a dominating run through the NCAA tournament, winning every game by double digits and by an average of 23.3 points.

    “I believe in the formula and I’m smart enough to put the very best people around me,” Hurley said. “We’re exactly where I thought we’d be.”

    A winning attitude

    This group all shared one important thing in common.

    They cared about winning and each other, not individual statistics. That’s hard to find in a college basketball world dominated by the transfer portal and Name, Image and Likeness money.

    “We just play the right way,’” senior Hassan Diarra said.

    Their tight bond showed on the court.

    Five players finished the season averaging in double figures for the first time since the 2007-08 season, ranging from leading scorer Tristen Newton (15.1) to Castle (11.1).

    “They just have unbelievable cohesiveness,” Murray said. “I think it permeates through the whole group and it’s why we play the way we do.

    Murray continued.

    “They’re incredibly driven. It comes from coach Hurley. I’ve never been around anybody that’s more committed to the idea of winning basketball games. He’s been able to infuse that in the mentality of all those guys, so they show up every day with winning in mind.”

    g.keefe@theday.com

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