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Dan Hurley’s Shrewd Roster-Building Has UConn Playing Like a Title Contender

The Huskies have had an impressive start to the season, leveling up from the program’s recent teams.

The last three UConn men’s teams to finish November undefeated (excluding the shortened 2020–21 season) have gone to the Final Four. The last two have won the national championship.

The 2022–23 Huskies will enter December without a loss. And if an impressive weekend at the Phil Knight Invitational was any indication, this year’s team has a very real chance of going to a Final Four … and maybe all the way.

It’s true UConn’s schedule in Portland didn’t match it up with an elite team. The Huskies took down a severely banged-up Oregon and a slightly overmatched Iowa State in two of their three games after the Cyclones upset North Carolina. Alabama could well get there, but the Crimson Tide aren’t in that category just yet. And before that, UConn played five buy games, all against far inferior competition. But there’s something to be said for UConn’s consistent dominance: In all eight games this season, the Huskies have had a 95% or better win probability with five minutes to go, per KenPom. UConn hasn’t trailed in the second half this season and, outside of a few nervy moments in a tied game against the Tide, hasn’t even played a high-stress minute of basketball. During a time of year that produces unpredictable results and surprising struggles against lower competition, the Huskies have rolled along untouched.

Dan Hurley and UConn receive the Phil Knight Invitational trophy

Hurley’s Huskies took home the Phil Knight Invitational trophy on Sunday.

Since turning the program around, Dan Hurley’s good-but-not-great Connecticut teams have often been able to win only in rockfights. They haven’t necessarily shot poorly on a percentage basis from deep, but they have been much more reliant on pounding you on the offensive glass and defending at a high level. This year’s group is different, as evidenced by its weekend in Portland. It’s much more capable from deep, like the 17-for-37 from beyond the arc it shot to blow Oregon out of the water in Game 1 in Portland. Nearly 44% of the Huskies’ shots have been from three; that number didn’t top 35% in each of the past two years. The Alabama win showed this group’s ability to go on big runs and put a game out of reach, something Hurley highlighted as a difference-maker between this year’s group and ones of old. And Sunday’s victory against Iowa State was a vintage Hurley effort, dominating the glass 48–19 and tallying 21 offensive rebounds (an absurd 64% of its misses).

What’s more, the Huskies showed how many different players can beat you. UConn had three leading scorers in three games: Tristen Newton against Oregon, Adama Sanogo against Alabama and Donovan Clingan against Iowa State. Clingan dominated the Cyclones’ experienced front line and was named the Invitational’s MVP as a result, helping UConn cruise despite getting virtually no production from Sanogo or Jordan Hawkins because of foul trouble.

“When you’re this deep, you can survive nights when your two [best] offensive players gave us six points combined,” Hurley said Sunday.

But what truly makes this team remarkable is how perfectly every piece in the nine-man rotation fits together, with every player bringing something unique to the table. Sanogo is the epicenter of the attack, formerly just a back-to-the-basket big now hitting pick-and-pop threes and Eurostepping around defenders. His backup in Clingan is an overwhelming force in the paint thanks to his size and touch around the rim, shooting more than 70% from the field and posting an eye-popping 15% block rate defensively.

Hawkins is the team’s most complete guard, capable of getting hot from deep and making plays in ball screens, and a potential NBA prospect. There were questions about point guard play coming in, but Newton is a smooth operator with a triple double already under his belt. Few defenders in the country are more disruptive than Andre Jackson, a remarkable athlete Hurley likened to “an American ninja.” Nahiem Alleyne, Joey Calcaterra and Alex Karaban all knock down threes at an impressive clip and make few mistakes, and Hassan Diarra balances them out as a terrific defender off the bench. Hurley gives his bench plenty of minutes, and it rewards him by making play after play. That depth may prove particularly impactful given how foul-prone Hurley’s teams have been throughout his coaching career.

Putting together a roster that fits this well on paper and having that translate to reality this fast feels increasingly like an outlier in the transfer portal age. This UConn team has several experienced pieces, but its nine-man core features just one returning starter from last year (Sanogo) and only two returning players. Hurley’s hit rate on both the freshmen and transfers in this class has been off the charts, identifying and securing early commitments from Clingan and Karaban in the summer of 2021 before landing Newton and Alleyne in April, Diarra in May and Calcaterra in June. Adjusting to new roles hasn’t been a problem, and Sanogo’s emergence from all-conference to All-American has been the cherry on top. Outside of the occasional turnover woes offensively, it’s really hard to find a weakness in this UConn team.

UConn is now favored in all but one remaining regular-season game on KenPom, the lone exception being a February road tilt at Creighton. The Bluejays were preseason favorites in the Big East and looked the part at the Maui Invitational, but they do lack the impressive depth UConn has and haven’t been quite as dominant as the Huskies. Circle matchups on Jan. 7 and Feb. 11 on your 2023 calendar. There’s a real chance UConn goes into the first meeting undefeated: Upcoming nonconference tests against Oklahoma State and Florida don’t feel intimidating right now, and the Huskies’ first three Big East games are against Butler, Georgetown and a struggling Villanova. If UConn can sweep a two-game road swing at Xavier and Providence around New Year’s, that Creighton game in early January could have even more juice than it does already.

The Huskies have won just one NCAA tournament game in the eight years since Kevin Ollie’s national title team. Hurley has a pair of tourney wins to his name from his time at Rhode Island but has lost both games he’s coached at UConn despite being the higher seed in each contest. This year’s team just feels different: deeper, more talented, more overwhelming on both ends and with more ways to beat you. The Sweet 16 has felt like a realistic goal that the Huskies have come up short of in back-to-back years, but that’s shooting low with this year’s team. If this past weekend in Portland was any indication, UConn is built to win in March and play in early April.

“The whole mindset of our program this year is that we’ve been contending the last couple of years, contending in the Big East, contending in tournaments. Now, we’re trying to go from contenders to champions,” Hurley said Friday. And after PK85, they’ve taken another step in the championship direction.

Xavier’s Souley Boum dribbles vs. Duke

Boum and Xavier left an impression despite going 1–2 in Portland.

Other Observations From a Weekend at PK85:

  • Putting on a 16-team men’s event like this one every year might be a bit too much to tackle, but this event should exist in some form on more than an every-five-year basis. Having near-constant games running at two high-quality facilities just footsteps from one another makes PK85 like the lovechild of a Final Four and an AAU live period weekend. My proposal: Bring a rotating cast of eight men’s and eight women’s teams every year, and maybe add the second men’s bracket for Phil Knight’s 90th birthday.

  • Perhaps the weekend’s biggest stock-riser was Portland coach Shantay Legans, who’s quickly becoming a name to know in coaching circles. The Pilots played North Carolina, Villanova and Michigan State in four days and were one bounce away from going 2–1, but came out with a positive point differential in those three games. Pac-12 ADs should be taking notes.

  • Going home 1–2 isn’t fun, but I came away relatively impressed with Xavier in its three games this weekend. This Musketeers team is still fairly rough defensively, but Souley Boum looks ahead of schedule at point guard, and Colby Jones is one of the nation’s most underrated stars. I think this is the third-best team in the Big East.

  • On paper, North Carolina looks deeper than it was a season ago. In practice, that hasn’t quite materialized, as evidenced by Caleb Love and RJ Davis playing 58 and 50 minutes, respectively, in Sunday’s four-overtime thriller. Carolina is now 362nd out of 363 Division I teams in bench minutes. Hubert Davis said Friday on that stat: “We’re going to need others to step up and play quality minutes while on the floor. It’s just not sustainable to play the starting five 30-plus minutes a night, so you need other guys to step up. … Again, it’s only November. We’ve played six games. So while I appreciate that stat, we’ve played six games.”
  • A quiet weekend winner: West Virginia. The Mountaineers were out of sight and out of mind after losing to Purdue on Thursday night, but that 12-point loss looks more impressive after the Boilermakers beat Gonzaga and Duke by 18 and 19, respectively. WVU then took care of business against Portland State and blew out Florida. Since the start of the season, the Mountaineers have risen from No. 71 to No. 29 in KenPom and look like another tournament team from the Big 12. 

More College Basketball Coverage:

This Purdue Team May Be Better Than Last Year’s
Men’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge Preview, Predictions
The Fyre Festival of Women’s Basketball