The 2022-23 college basketball season will forever be marked by parity and historical firsts, but UConn put together its own historic championship run.
The latest college basketball season was an outlier, a campaign littered with several historic firsts.
North Carolina, ranked No. 1 in the preseason, was the first team to miss the NCAA Tournament after topping the early AP poll. On one particularly sweet day, we saw more ranked teams lose to unranked foes than on any other single day in the sport’s history. In March, Fairleigh Dickinson won as a 16-seed and Princeton made the Sweet 16 as a 15-seed, providing the past magic of UMBC and Saint Peter’s, but in the same tournament. Not a single 1-seed made the Elite Eight for the first time ever, and no top-3 seed made the Final Four for the first time ever.
Heck, even the current national champions were unranked in the preseason. The other three Final Four participants were all there for the first time in program history.
It was a weird season — but don’t let that diminish the legacy of this UConn team.
Under a microscope, every season is a little weird, an outlier in some ways. Just look at the last three UConn title teams: In the 2004 title game, the Emeka Okafor-led Huskies beat a Georgia Tech squad that went just 9-7 in ACC play; the Kemba Walker-led 2011 team won in a Final Four that combined for the lowest seed total in history; and the Shabazz Napier-led 2014 team was a 7-seed, and they beat an 8-seed (Kentucky) in the title game.
So yes, this is another championship in an outlier year for UConn. Nevertheless, this group routinely proved it was not an outlier champion, despite being a 4-seed, despite the Final Four field, despite everything else.
The Huskies were great — period. In fact, they are one of the most dominant champions we’ve ever seen.
Dan Hurley’s squad won its six tournament games by an average of 20 points, which is the fourth-largest average margin since 1985. They’re also only the fifth team to win all six games by at least 10 points, joining the ranks of 2000 Michigan State, 2001 Duke, 2009 North Carolina and 2018 Villanova.
“They had their way with the entire field this tournament,” San Diego State head coach Brian Dutcher lamented after the title game. “They’re the hottest team in college basketball.”
That isn’t a fluke. UConn’s been this dominant for the majority of the season, save for a rough stretch in January at the start of Big East play. The Huskies went 17-0 against non-conference opponents, winning all 17 by double digits. Their two losses in February and March were by a combined five points. Besides a bit of turbulence, this group rolled.
You can thank UConn’s defense for that level of dominance. Led by Final Four MOP Adama Sanogo and 7-2 freshman Donovan Clingan shutting down the interior, the Huskies proved to have the sport’s most formidable defense. They held all six NCAA Tournament opponents below 39 percent shooting and each of the last four — Arkansas, Gonzaga, Miami and San Diego State — to 33.3 percent or worse.
“We feel like we’re the best defensive team in the nation,” guard Tristen Newton told HeatCheckCBB on Sunday. “We feel like we have the length, size and athleticism to guard anybody.”
This championship also puts the UConn program in even more rarefied air. It is the school’s fifth, which ties UConn with Duke and Indiana for the fourth-most national titles in history. Only UCLA (11), Kentucky (8) and North Carolina (6) have more.
The debate about whether they have reached “blue blood” status will rage online for days, but their standing in college basketball’s historical pecking order isn’t in question.
UConn has won all five of its championships since 1999, becoming just the third program to win five championships in a single 25-year period. Only John Wooden’s UCLA dynasty and Mike Krzyzewski’s teams at Duke have matched that feat.
And that’s something that makes the Huskies unique: Hurley is the third UConn coach to lead the program to the mountaintop during this stretch. This isn’t a case of the dynasty being based around a single, Hall of Fame-level coach. It also isn’t a dynasty that has really felt like a dynasty in recent years.
Since UConn’s last national championship in 2014, the Huskies went seven consecutive seasons without being ranked in the final AP poll. That stretch also contained three losing seasons, all while toiling in the American Athletic Conference instead of their ancestral home in the Big East. The program also won just a single NCAA Tournament game between 2015 and 2022.
Hurley had to rebuild the program, and he did just that.
“This was our vision,” he said. “This was our dream. This is what we talked about when we recruited these guys, that we could get together and do something big like this.”
UConn is now back atop the sport, but they’re here in a way that feels different. The Huskies didn’t just catch fire at the right time, nor did one player singlehandedly carry a flawed team. No, this was a show of greatness, something that felt inevitable every time the Huskies took the court.
For all the weird moments that this college basketball season brought about, this UConn team deserves to be remembered as a legendary national champion.