STORRS, Conn. – Before every home game, UConn’s hype man gets on his microphone and greets the crowd with, “Welcome to the basketball capital of the Wooooorrrrld!”
With four men’s NCAA championship banners hanging from the ceiling at Gampel Pavilion along with 11 women’s banners, it’s not an entirely empty brag.
The Huskies (29-8) are the biggest name left playing basketball this season, making the Final Four as a No. 4 seed, joining Miami (29-7) and San Diego State (31-6), both No. 5 seeds, and ninth-seeded Florida Atlantic (35-3).
But while Connecticut can boast the most titles of any school in college basketball over the last quarter-century, this week’s trip to the Final Four is the men’s first since their last championship in 2014.
In between, UConn went through a down period that included three straight losing seasons between 2017 and 2019 while languishing in the American Athletic Conference. It fired coach Kevin Ollie, lost a subsequent legal battle over his salary and endured NCAA sanctions.
When Dan Hurley took the job in 2018, his charge was to restore luster to the brand.
“The timeline, with the way that we did it, building a culture and doing it without cheating, without lying and doing it with integrity and building it the right way, I mean, we’re exactly on time,” Hurley said Tuesday.
Hurley credits good recruiting, including the additions this year of freshmen Alex Karaban, a starting forward from nearby Southborough, Massachusetts, and Donovan Clingan, a 7-foot-2 center from Bristol. UConn followers growing up, both have played key roles.
And there were the transfer portal pickups, including starting point guard Tristen Newton and role players Joey Calcaterra, Nahiem Alleyne and Hassan Diarra.
“I would definitely say the history was a huge component of why I came here,” Karaban said. “Seeing the four banners up there and seeing what coach (Jim) Calhoun had built and for it to be close to home for me as well was a major factor. It was something I wanted to do in my college career. I wanted to win national championships and make it to the Final Four and I wanted to add myself to history, to what was a super-cemented, historical program.”
Calhoun, the Hall of Fame coach who built UConn from a regional powerhouse into a national one, winning titles in 1999, 2004 and 2011, said Hurley has done a good job capitalizing on that foundation, including filling the school’s practice facility with pictures of past championships and Huskies who went on to the NBA.
The school’s decision to leave the American and rejoin the Big East in 2020 also was a factor, he said.
“It helped, there’s no question,” Calhoun said. “It helped get recruits. The competition, the opportunity to go great places and play great places. Nothing against the American, but the Big East is one of the two or three best basketball conferences in the country. We have teams that traveled very far in the tournament.”
The Huskies haven’t lost a nonconference game all season, and the battles in the Big East, where they lost eight times, have helped harden them for the tournament, Calhoun said.
Hurley said he’s been relying heavily on advice from Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma on how to prepare his Huskies for everything that surrounds a trip to Houston and a date with Miami.
The Hurricanes are coached by Jim Larrañaga, who rose to fame when he coached 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 shorter underdog against a much bigger blue blood with a longer history of success.
“We’re like 6-4, 6-6, 6-7 and UConn is huge,” he said. “So, it’s an interesting matchup in terms of contrasting bigs versus 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, it’s great, because that means you have a huge fan base 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 I don’t have the right coaching staff – being a blue blood doesn’t, I mean, there’s a lot of teams at home right now that are blue bloods.”