Hurley’s rebuild is complete as UConn returns to Final Four

STORRS, Conn. (AP) – Before each home game, UConn’s hype man grabs his microphone and greets the crowd with, “Welcome to the basketball capital of wooooorrrrld!”

With four men’s NCAA championship banners hanging from the ceiling of the Gampel Pavilion along with 11 women’s banners, it’s not an entirely empty boast.

The Huskies (29-8) are the Biggest name to play basketball this season, do the last four as No. 4 seeds, alongside Miami (29-7) and San Diego State (31-6), both No. 5 seeds, and Florida Atlantic (35-3).

But while Connecticut has the most titles of any college basketball school in the last quarter-century, the men’s trip to the Final Four this week is their first since their last championship in 2014.

In between, UConn went through a down streak that included three straight losing seasons between 2017 and 2019 while languishing in the American Athletic Conference. Coach Kevin Ollie fired lost a subsequent lawsuit over his salary and endured NCAA sanctions.

When Dan Hurley took the job in 2018, his job was to bring the brand back to shine.

“The schedule, with the way we’ve done it, building a culture and doing it without cheating, without lying and doing it with integrity and building it right, I mean, we’re right on schedule,” Hurley said Tuesday.

Hurley credits good recruiting, including this year’s additions of Alex Karaban, a forward from nearby Southborough, Massachusetts, and Donovan Clingan, a 7ft 2 center from Bristol. Growing up as UConn supporters, both have played key roles.

And there were the transfer portal pickups, including launch point guard Tristen Newton and roleplayers Joey Calcaterra, Nahiem Alleyne and Hassan Diarra.

“I would definitely say history was a big factor in why I came here,” Karaban said. “Seeing the four banners up there and seeing what Coach (Jim) Calhoun had built and that it was close to home for me as well was a big factor. That was something I wanted to do in my college career. I wanted to win national championships and make the Final Four, and I wanted to inscribe myself in history, in a super cemented historic program.”

Calhoun, the Hall of Fame coach who took UConn from a regional powerhouse to a national one and won titles in 1999, 2004 and 2011, said Hurley did a good job capitalizing on that foundation, including the abundance of the practice facility of the school with pictures from past championships and huskies going into the NBA.

The decision of the school, the American and Returning to the Big East again in 2020 was also a factor, he said.

“It helped, no question,” Calhoun said. “It helped get recruits. The competition, the opportunity to reach great places and play great places. Nothing against the American, but the Big East is one of the top two or three basketball conferences in the country. We have teams that have traveled a lot in the tournament.”

The Huskies haven’t lost a nonconference game all season, and fighting in the Big East, where they lost eight times, helped toughen them up for the tournament, Calhoun said.

Hurley said he relied heavily on advice from Calhoun and women’s trainer Geno Auriemma on how to prepare his huskies for anything a trip to Houston and a Date with Miami.

The Hurricanes are coached by Jim Larrañaga, who rose to fame coaching 11th seed George Mason to an upset win over Calhoun’s top-seeded UConn team in the 2006 Regional Finals. Larrañaga sees a lot of similarities in that matchup and this one – a minor underdog against a much bigger blue blood with a longer track record.

“We’re like 6-4, 6-6, 6-7 and UConn is huge,” he said. “So it’s an interesting matchup in terms of the contrast between bigs and smalls.”

But while the Huskies are 8-1 in Final Four games, Hurley said the program’s tradition won’t help his team on Saturday.

“Having an incredible brand is great because that means you have a huge following and generally there’s going to be a pretty good commitment in terms of resources,” he said. “But if you don’t have the right people – if you don’t have the right coaching staff – to be blue-blooded doesn’t do it, I mean there are a lot of teams at home that are blue-blooded at the moment.


AP sportswriter Tim Reynolds of Coral Gables, Fla. contributed to this report.


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