For the first time in quite a while, UConn coach Dan Hurley didn’t get the chance to empty his bench at the end of a win.
The Huskies did it in all six games of their NCAA tournament title run last March. Hurley’s son, Andrew, even got to dribble out the final seconds of the championship game, alongside other little-used Huskies. It had become something of a tradition in games outside of Big East play: coming into Monday’s Legends Classic title game against Texas, UConn had won 21 straight non-league games by 10 or more points. That included all six NCAA tournament games, all three at last year’s Phil Knight invitational and Sunday’s 20-point win over Indiana. Generally, it hasn’t mattered the competition level: take UConn outside of the grind of the Big East, and the Huskies have rolled.
UConn continued that double-figure win streak Monday night by beating the Longhorns, 81–71. A strong second-half from the Longhorns stopped Hurley from being able to take his foot off the gas late, but the Huskies controlled play from the tip, never trailing and leading by as many as 16. That the absence of true “garbage time” made this game something of an outlier for the Huskies considering their recent dominance is an illustration of just how good UConn has been lately. If they’ve taken a step back from last year’s title-winning team, you’d have a hard time noticing. The 2023-24 season may only be in its infancy, but the Huskies passed their first two real tests of the season with flying colors and look like a team with a very real chance of repeating as national champions.
If you’ve sat in on a Hurley press conference over the years, you’ve probably heard this refrain: “Elite defense, elite offense and win the backboards”. It’s the recipe that Hurley laid out in building this Huskies program back to the top of the college basketball world, one they followed to a T in 2022-23. In UConn’s two games at Madison Square Garden, it proved itself capable of following that strategy despite new personnel.
The Huskies dominated on the glass, doubling up Indiana (44–22) and handling Texas (40–29) on the backboards Monday night after Hurley challenged them to be better following an underwhelming performance against Mississippi Valley State last week. They scored better than 1.25 points per possession against the Longhorns, a blistering performance for a team still breaking in three new starters. And defensively, the Huskies showed against Indiana on Sunday how they can neutralize opponents at the rim, keeping the Hoosiers under 60 points and limiting star center Kel’el Ware to 0-for-6 on two-point shots.
Being able to maintain that level despite losing the likes of Final Four Most Outstanding Player Adama Sanogo, first-rounder Jordan Hawkins and defensive whiz Andre Jackson was far from a given. But internal growth, combined with some savvy offseason additions, have UConn positioned as one of the nation’s elite teams yet again.
Up front, the combination of Donovan Clingan and Samson Johnson at center has made the departure of Sanogo manageable. Coming off a foot injury that limited his practice time, Clingan had a quiet weekend, but Johnson made his presence felt, flashing his elite athleticism around the rim on both ends. Against Texas, he posted 15 points, eight rebounds and a pair of blocks, and led UConn with a +16.
“A whole different beast,” sophomore forward Alex Karaban said of Johnson Monday. “The way Samson played today was unbelievable. He’s such a special talent.”
Rutgers transfer Cam Spencer has been superb stepping into Hawkins’s role at shooting guard, posting 18 points on eight shots Sunday and 16 more along with five assists and five rebounds in Monday’s victory. He has brought a stability that comes with being a fifth-year senior, and while he’s not quite the shooter Hawkins is, he’s more than capable of lighting it up from distance and takes some playmaking pressure off of fifth-year point guard Tristen Newton.
“He’s what we absolutely need him to be,” Hurley said after the Indiana win.
And from a scoring standpoint, UConn seems to be finding its late-game go-to guy: Karaban. He made three clutch baskets late in Monday’s contest en route to 20 points, including a tough pull-up two that served as a dagger. Used mostly as a sharpshooter on last year’s team, Karaban’s full scoring package has been on display more this season, and he has scored in double figures in all five wins to start the year.
“That’s just the next step for him, being able to play off a live dribble, play off a shot-fake. You can definitely see the growth,” Hurley said. “Everything he showed tonight, he’s going to continue to get better at. These sophomores, they’re going to be much better in January, February and March than they are now.”
UConn also figures to only get better with time from a health perspective. The Huskies were without star freshman Stephon Castle in both games in New York after he suffered a knee injury last week. Castle is expected to return to the floor early in December, potentially as soon as a Dec. 1 showdown at Kansas. By then, the Huskies will likely have set the record for longest non-conference winning streak by 10 or more points, with games against Manhattan and New Hampshire standing in the way of topping the 23 straight double-digit wins that North Carolina rattled off in 2008 and ’09. Maybe the only threat: post-Thanksgiving sluggishness. The Huskies play on Black Friday against Manhattan, and upon hearing that, Hurley joked about locking in a little extra to keep the streak alive.
“We’re canceling Thanksgiving,” Hurley said Monday. “We’re not letting these guys eat the turkey, be all sluggish and s— the next day.”
The Huskies’ dominance won’t be linear. Remember last year, when their season was supposedly on life support after six losses in eight games during Big East play? The road might be even bumpier this year, with the new faces in tow and a loaded schedule that features Kansas, North Carolina and Gonzaga in December and a packed Big East slate starting in January. But there’s a level of dominance that title contenders tend to show when they’re playing their best, and UConn once again appears to have the extra gear that few others possess.
“The program just has so much confidence,” Hurley said. “You win a national championship, you step onto the court with just a lot of belief that you’re supposed to win. And we’re pretty relentless. The coaches are relentless, the players are relentless. We’re going to try to beat you by as many as we can beat you by.”