UConn’s historical two-year run that led to March Madness repeat should stand alone

GLENDALE, Ariz. — As Connecticut sliced through this NCAA Tournament with ease, as it treated each opponent like it didn’t belong on the same court as the powerhouse Huskies, the question has arisen:

Where does Dan Hurley’s juggernaut stand in the sport’s history?

Over the past four decades, we have seen a handful of dominant teams. Kentucky in 1996. Connecticut in 2004. Florida in 2006-07. North Carolina in 2009. Villanova in 2018.

Merely based on how UConn dispatched its six foes in the dance, by an absurd 140 points, it at least belongs in the conversation with the aforementioned teams.

What is more impressive, however, is what this program has done the past two years under Hurley, winning it all a year ago in such one-sided fashion — the Huskies’ six victories came by an average of 20 points without a single legitimate challenge — then doing it again with a vastly different roster. With three new starters, Stephon Castle, Cam Spencer and Donovan Clingan. After losing five of their eight leading scorers.

In the modern era, these past two years stand alone in their dominance, expert team-building, player development and unparalleled consistency. A 68-11 record and 12 NCAA Tournament victories all by double figures.

Dan Hurley’s UConn teams went 68-11 record with 12 NCAA Tournament victories by double-figures the past two seasons. USA TODAY Sports

It’s significantly harder now to produce title-caliber teams in back-to-back seasons. Players move on, either to the professional ranks or the transfer portal. Parity has eliminated dynasties. Connecticut became the fourth team to reach the Sweet 16 the season after winning it all — Kansas in 2009, Louisville in 2014 and Duke in 2016 are the others — since Florida in 2007 and the first to make it to the Elite Eight.

By manhandling National Player of the Year Zach Edey and fellow No. 1 seed Purdue, 75-60, at State Farm Stadium on Monday night, Connecticut became the eighth team to win back-to-back championships. It hadn’t happened since Florida in 2006-07.

“No one can imagine how mentally exhausting it is that every game you play you get everybody’s best shot and to be watching film and to know the way that team is playing on film if not how they’re going to play against you,” said former Villanova coach Jay Wright, who never got past the second round after winning each of his titles. “They’re going to be at another level and trying to get your guys to be on that level mentally every day is so hard. That’s what’s so impressive. You can be talented, but if you don’t mentally stay driven and hungry, you’re going to slip. They never slipped.”

Dan Hurley and UConn became the first program to win consecutive titles since Florida in 2006-07. AP

The Gators returned all five starters for their second championship. The previous team to repeat, Duke in 1991-92, had similar continuity. It’s one thing to have a bull’s-eye on your back and the pressure that comes with it. Everyone gunning for you, expectations through the roof. It’s another to do that with a new group of players who have that pressure without the payoff the previous season.

That is what Hurley and Connecticut were dealing with. A freshman in Castle starting from Day 1. A transfer in Spencer who had never won anything before. A third starter in Clingan oozing potential, but experienced only in a minor role off the bench.

Alex Karaban was one of two returning starters from last year’s UConn team. Getty Images
Stephon Castle started as a freshman for UConn this season. Getty Images

“The thing that’s so impressive about UConn to me is when you have to plug in five new players and the culture and the standards with which they’re playing at has continued with three new starters, that’s really impressive,” Billy Donovan, the Florida coach during its two-year championship run, told The Post recently. “There’s different challenges that you deal with. We had to deal with the pressure of being unranked and being ranked No. 1 [after winning a championship]. They’re dealing with the pressure of winning it and having three new starters. It’s those circumstances to me that end up speaking to the character inside the program.”

In a weird way, it has worked in Connecticut’s favor. It has a roster of guys with a lot to prove, inspired by the maniacal Hurley finding ways to motivate them. He pushed the notion of his team being disrespected by it being picked to finish third in the Big East and ranked sixth in the Associated Poll to start the season. Returning starters like Alex Karaban and Tristen Newton — the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four — found themselves in more prominent positions. Clingan was now being counted on to be a leader instead of a backup. Spencer and Castle were going through this for the first time. Hurley used that to avoid a championship hangover, as a way to challenge his talented group, dangling the idea of creating history in a program where that is so hard to accomplish.

Alex Karaban said Dan Hurley never allowed Connecticut’s returning players to be “complacent” after their championship last year. USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Con

Connecticut chased another title like a scrappy underdog outworking its opponents. Except, it was superior from a talent standpoint, too. That made it bulletproof, one of Hurley’s favorite words to describe this group.

There will be debates about where this team ranks among the greats in the days and weeks to come. But there should be no question about where the past two years stand — above the rest over the last 40 years. We haven’t seen a two-season run like it.

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