Despite being just a four seed, despite losing six of eight games during a brutal January slide, the UConn Huskies are a juggernaut on the brink of the 2023 NCAA Tournament title, pending a win against San Diego State in the finals. Just ask Miami or Gonzaga or Arkansas or St. Mary’s or Iona, five legitimately excellent teams who the Huskies trashed by an average of 20.6 points during their historically dominant run to the Final Four. Coached by Danny Hurley, the Huskies have as many as four guys who could be first rounders in the NBA Draft (Jordan Hawkins and Andre Jackson this year, freshmen Alex Karaban and Donovan Clingan in 2024)—and, most impressive, that doesn’t even include Adama Sanogo, their colossal center and leading scorer.
According to T-Rank, the Huskies are handily the best team in the country, armed with the third-best offense and the ninth-best defense. While Big East teams briefly flummoxed them in January by siccing a center on Jackson (UConn versatile but poor-shooting point guard), UConn has adjusted so resoundingly that doing so has become untenable.
“We figured that out,” coach Danny Hurley said in a press conference after their Elite Eight annihilation of Gonzaga. “That doesn’t work anymore. To be honest with you, (it was) coaching mistakes during the season where it just took me too long to get Andre to the places where he could still be one of the biggest impact players in terms of winning and losing. There’s not many players in the country that impact the game the way this guy does. Once I got better as a coach, I wasn’t putting him in a position to be successful. And since we’ve unlocked that code, he’s been unbelievable.”
On a team this obviously and unquestionably good, it feels almost insulting to call any player the “x-factor;” UConn is so deep and multifaceted that winning is pretty much fait accompli—they can weather a cold shooting night from Hawkins or a below average showing from Sanogo on the glass or a turnover spree from Jackson, as long as they don’t all happen at once.
Instead, it might just be easier to say that Hurley is what sets the Huskies apart. Largely overshadowed by his father (Bob Hurley, the legendary New Jersey high school basketball coach) and older brother (Bobby Hurley, the floor-smacking Duke icon and current Arizona State coach), Danny Hurley has quietly grown into one of the best coaches in college basketball.
With his recruiting, he’s navigated the precarious tight rope of stocking enough talent to overwhelm other teams without overstuffing the roster with talent to the point that it gets raided by the NBA and transfer portal before it can reach its full potential. Yes, Hurley has great players—once again, four potential first round picks—but, really, he has smart players and tough players.
Even if there’s not necessarily a surplus of individual shot creation or perimeter isolation scoring, the players are so complementary and well-suited to their role that it doesn’t matter. Hawkins can’t really dribble and Jackson can’t really shoot, so Jackson initiates sequences that Hawkins can then complete; Sanogo provides Karaban with interior cover, while Karaban offers perimeter support.
With such a talented roster at their disposal, the deciding element of UConn’s matchup against San Diego State will be how normal UConn can be. During their improbably run through the 2023 NCAA Tournament, San Diego State has succeeded by yucking their opponents’ yum. While the Aztecs themselves are a fairly anemic offensive team, they invariably bring other teams down to their level—they turned Alabama’s pace and spacey NBA style attack into a traffic jam; they defanged nearly every aspect of Florida Atlantic’s vaunted guard depth.
For UConn, San Diego State poses a unique challenge because they bring a style and mentality that doesn’t really exist in the Big East. Whereas the Big East is stocked with explosive guards like Tyler Kolek or Souley Boum or Colby Jones, San Diego State plays a brand of basketball that practically disregards the actual basketball. Doling out physical punishment is the primary goal; scoring points is simply a byproduct of inflicting pain.
To wit, UConn’s one relative weakness has been the finickiness of their guards. They rank 237th in turnover rate, the one blemish on an otherwise sparkling statistical profile. Accordingly, San Diego State will send their swarm of mean-spirited, opportunistic defenders straight into the craw of the Huskies’ ball-handlers. This is a distinct change of pace from UConn’s other Tournament opponents who were mostly concerned about protecting the paint, ball pressure be damned. In turn, this opens up opportunities for Adama Sanogo, as long as UConn’s guards can make entry passes. If the Aztecs don’t actively deny him touches, he will devour Nathan Mensah, their one true center.
In order for UConn to win, Hurley must devise a way to absorb the Aztecs’ pressure without breaking down. Just as he schemed ways for Jackson to exploit being guarded by centers with his cutting and passing ability, he’ll have to figure out how to mitigate a new existential threat to UConn’s title hopes. The beauty of this UConn team has always been their abundance of options; Danny Hurley now just has to choose the right ones.
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