Dan Hurley Masters Winning Formula at UConn With Back-to-Back Men’s Titles

Elite fundamentals paired with near-maniacal competitiveness has given the Huskies an edge in the transfer portal era and in an NCAA tournament format defined by chaos.
Hurley and the Huskies celebrate after winning the national championship.
Hurley and the Huskies celebrate after winning the national championship. / Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
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“We make a hard tournament look easy.” 

Dan Hurley, the mastermind behind the UConn Huskies’ historic run of dominance through a tournament known for its unpredictability, said it all Saturday night after his team’s win over the Alabama Crimson Tide. The words had to ring through the minds of more than a few Purdue Boilermakers fans in the second half Monday night, as they succumbed to the same suffocating fate that the last 11 teams to play the Huskies in the Big Dance have. 

This tournament isn’t supposed to be dominated like this. Its structure, built on single-elimination games, is meant to breed chaos. Perhaps UConn has cracked the formula to overcome that. Or, perhaps the Huskies are just that good. 

“What could you say? We won, by a lot … again,” Hurley cracked postgame Monday night. 

Before 2024 UConn, a defending national title winner hadn’t even advanced past the Sweet 16 in the next tournament since ’07. That team, the Florida Gators under Billy Donovan, also ripped off consecutive titles, but the context then was far different. The Gators had returned almost everyone: Al Horford, Corey Brewer, Joakim Noah, Taurean Green, and even they were at least tested throughout their run. UConn, in large part, wasn’t, winning every tournament game by 14 or more points. The Huskies also had to build a new team, something more possible in the era of the transfer portal than it was then but still incredibly difficult. Adama Sanogo, Andre Jackson Jr. and Jordan Hawkins, arguably the three best players from the ’23 run, all departed, yet UConn came back better.

What’s the formula to becoming, as Hurley called it a few times this March, bulletproof? Simplified: Elite offense, elite defense, elite rebounding. That was a common refrain a year ago from Hurley, as the runaway freight train that is his program right now started heading down the tracks. Zoom in though, and you find an even clearer picture that has shaped this dominance. 

The clearest building block for the Huskies is a near-maniacal competitiveness. UConn doesn’t simply want to beat you, it wants to systematically destroy you, then step on your throat for good measure. Much of that stems from the top with Hurley, whose standard for excellence exceeds that of just about anyone. He can look crazy on the sideline, with his breakdowns after foul calls and agony after mistakes, but in the past two years, Hurley has found players just as ruthless as he is. Watch transfer guard Cam Spencer, an essential part of this offseason’s reload, go through a pregame shooting routine. His eyes tell an entire story of a seek-and-destroy mentality that couldn’t be a better fit for Hurley. 

Part of finding that mentality is evaluating it in recruiting, but another part is self-selecting. UConn’s culture of competition, built daily in practice, isn’t exactly hidden. If it’s not for you, you’ll probably see it on a recruiting visit and head elsewhere. 

“You know what you’re getting into,” Hurley said in March. “We’re ruthless competitors. Everything that we do is competition. Preseason softball game, people are diving into second base, sliding headfirst. I think that has got to be your mentality if you’re playing at UConn because you’re getting judged by Final Fours, championships and excellence.” 

Newton shoots against Purdue during Monday’s national championship game.
Newton shoots against Purdue during Monday’s national championship game. / Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

That all-out desire to win breeds an unselfishness that’s hard to find in 2024 college basketball. UConn’s five starters all averaged between 11 and 15 points per game, and “whose night” has depended on the day. Saturday, it was Stephon Castle, the Huskies’ super freshman, who took over and dominated Alabama. Monday, Tristen Newton, the Huskies’ Bob Cousy Award–winning point guard, took over for the second time in as many title games. Four of five starters led the team in scoring at least once in the run to this year’s title. 

Competitiveness alone isn’t enough to make this tournament look this easy though. UConn combines elite talent with elite execution, thanks in no small part to a brilliant coaching staff that goes well beyond Hurley. The Huskies’ offense is poetry in motion, a beautiful display of constant motion, cutting and screening with influences from Turkey to Japan and non-Division I college teams. They’ve zigged while the rest of the sport zags, doubling down on running actual offense in a world where more and more teams rely on simplifying things to play in ball screens. Assistants Luke Murray and Kimani Young get frequent shoutouts from their head coach for their elite work scouting opponents, and third assistant Tom Moore has head coaching experience and is well regarded for his recruiting work. 

“Luke and Kimani, those two guys, they're head coach quality,” Hurley said. “They’re high-major-level head coach quality. Those two guys have no holes in their game at all. They’re highest level recruiters, great player development, great with tactics, understanding the branding piece, great motivators.” 

“We’ve got the best coaching staff in the country,” Donovan Clingan said Monday night. 

The retention of Murray and Young after last year’s title was an essential part of a seamless transition into defending the crown. Faces changed, but UConn’s program identity didn’t. Retaining pieces of last year’s puzzle like Newton, Clingan and Alex Karaban was also essential. Clingan could have turned pro and would have likely been a first-round pick after backing up Sanogo a year ago, but elected to return and improve. Mission accomplished. 

“I love UConn. I love being here,” Clingan said in March. “I love the guys in the locker room. I love the coaching staff. I really feel like I wanted to come back and prove what I could do … Just realized how fun it is and how great winning is.” 

The page was turned fairly quickly last spring. Karaban said the team took about a week and a half off after the 2023 title before getting right back to work. 

“Once you get in the gym with Coach Hurley, you really start forgetting about everything,” Karaban said. “You start the process again … we’re hungry people.” 

Spencer and Clingan react after a play on Monday against Purdue.
Spencer and Clingan react after a play on Monday against Purdue. / Michael Chow/The Republic / USA TODAY

Add NBA talent, professional-level execution and a relentless pursuit of dominance, and you get the buzzsaw Purdue ran into Monday night. Purdue was, by far, the best team the Huskies have played in two years of tournament runs, and in some years may well have ended the season cutting down nets. They featured a two-time National Player of the Year in Zach Edey and ripped through the regular season and NCAA tournament. But the Boilermakers just couldn’t keep up with the rampaging Huskies. An early stretch of dominance from Edey (16 points in the game’s first 15 minutes) gave Purdue some initial hope, but that was merely enough to keep the Boilermakers within striking distance early on, and outside of Edey, the Boilermakers were no match for UConn’s overwhelming force. 

UConn didn’t put together one of its signature long scoring runs to blow the Boilermakers out … instead, it just slowly but surely stretched, stretched and stretched the lead some more to gradually put the game away. The little things quickly become backbreaking when you’re playing against a team this good: the tipped pass that turns into a three instead of a steal, the offensive rebound after what looked like a key defensive stop that turns into a momentum-changing bucket. 

“We just were wasting so much energy to fight once they got it to double digits; then we would get stops, and we couldn’t get rebounds,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “That was just really hard for us to overcome.”

Last year’s UConn had an all-time great run. This? This is an all-time great team. Per KenPom’s adjusted efficiency metric, the Huskies are the second-highest-rated team to win a championship since 1997, as far back as the site’s metrics go. The only champ better: Duke’s 2001 title-winning team that featured Jay Williams, Shane Battier, Carlos Boozer and Mike Dunleavy Jr. Villanova’s ’18 title team seemed tough to beat in recent college basketball history, but this year’s UConn has a strong case to clear them, with its ridiculous tournament dominance and 37–3 overall mark. Fully healthy, UConn lost just once all season: a February road loss to Creighton in which the Bluejays shot a ridiculous 14–28 from deep and UConn a miserable 3–16. And the context of what UConn had to replace from last season combined with the notorious difficulty of trying to go back-to-back, makes this one of the most impressive coaching jobs by Hurley in modern college basketball. 

“To lose that much and, again, to do what we did again, it’s got to be as impressive a two-year run as a program’s had since prior to whoever did it before Duke,” Hurley said. “To me, it is more impressive than what Florida and Duke did because they brought back their entire teams. We lost some major players.”

Is a dynasty next? The Huskies are all but assured to sustain heavy roster losses, with Newton and Spencer out of eligibility and at least Castle and Clingan likely bound for the NBA. But Hurley has demonstrated a clear understanding of the formula for what it takes to win at an elite level, joining the very short list of active coaches with two national championships and plenty of time to hunt a third (or more). There’s little question that Hurley’s insatiable desire to win won’t vanish: He was seen asking a support staffer where next year’s Final Four was … while still on the floor celebrating this year’s championship. He spoke about turning a two-year run into a three-year run from the dais postgame and planned on chatting about recruiting with his staff during Tuesday’s flight home. After speaking before the season about not being as fulfilled as he expected to be from winning the first title, it seems unlikely a second will be any different. 

Hurley cuts down the nets after winning the national championship.
Hurley cuts down the nets after winning the national championship. / Michael Chow/The Republic / USA TODAY

“Don’t get me wrong, [winning the title] was an incredible feeling in the moment,” Hurley said in a November interview with now-defunct The Messenger. “But it hasn’t fulfilled me in a way that maybe I thought it would. I was probably chasing that championship thinking there’d be some level of healing. It’s like realizing there’s no Santa Claus.” 

Two years ago, Hurley’s standing at UConn was, if nothing else, a touch rocky. Four years in at a place where championships are expected, he hadn’t won an NCAA tournament game. Losing to the New Mexico State Aggies in a first-round upset in Buffalo was a potential pivot point in the program’s direction. What followed was a sharpening of epic proportions, a top-down look from the Huskies head coach at how to elevate his program to the next level. 

“It changed the way we put together our roster,” Hurley said in March. “The personalities, the skill sets, a long look in the mirror at me as a coach, as an offensive coach. I think I’ve always done a lot of things right, but there were blind spots for this program to become elite … That was some deep, dark depression for a week, 10 days, two weeks, but coming out of that, we’ve made all the right moves and we’ve been the best program in the country since that moment.” 

The faces will be different, but UConn’s dominance doesn’t seem likely to end anytime soon. The formula has been built, the culture established, the momentum only continuing to build. 

“We’re going to maintain a championship culture,” Hurley, backward championship hat on, said rather stone-faced Monday night. “We’re bringing in some very talented high school freshmen. Our returning players, through player development, will take a big jump. We’ll strategically add through the portal. 

“I don’t think that we’re going anywhere.”


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Kevin Sweeney

KEVIN SWEENEY

Kevin Sweeney is a staff writer at Sports Illustrated covering college basketball and the NBA Draft, and is an analyst for The Field of 68. A graduate of Northwestern, Kevin is a voter for the Naismith Trophy and is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association (USBWA).