College Basketball
UConn's repeat try might be the last for a while. 'It's going to get tougher,' coach Dan Hurley says
College Basketball

UConn's repeat try might be the last for a while. 'It's going to get tougher,' coach Dan Hurley says

Published Mar. 29, 2024 8:22 p.m. ET

UConn is trying to be the first team to win back-to-back NCAA men's basketball titles in 17 years — and that's not all.

With three more March Madness wins, the Huskies could wind up as the last team ever to repeat as champions.

"It's tough. It's not easy," UConn coach Dan Hurley said Friday as his top-seeded Huskies prepared to play No. 3 Illinois for a spot in their second straight Final Four. "It's going to get tougher."

Repeating has never been easy, though John Wooden figured it out pretty well at UCLA, winning seven in a row from 1967-73 behind future Hall of Famers like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — then known as Lew Alcindor — and Bill Walton.


But that was an era when players would stay at one school, unable to leave early for the NBA or easily transfer. Even when Duke repeated in 1991 and '92 and Florida did it in '06 and '07, it was a much different era.

With the advent of the transfer portal and the one-and-done pro prospect — along with name, image and likeness deals that can lure players elsewhere — long-term team-building has largely gone the way of the two-handed set shot.

"Oh, it's harder. It's way harder," Hurley said. "Obviously, you're managing your roster with the portal, with NIL. You'd better be a more skilled coach these days because you're dealing with a lot more stuff.

"For us, I think we've made it look easy in these past two tournaments," Hurley said. "But it's hard."

UConn beat San Diego State 82-52 in the Sweet 16 on Thursday night in a rematch of last year's title game, becoming the first defending champions since the 2007 Gators to make it back to the Elite Eight. Even so, this year's Huskies are much different than last year's NCAA champions.

Adama Sanogo (Bulls), Jordan Hawkins (Pelicans) and Andre Jackson (Bucks) left for the NBA. Guard Stephon Castle arrived as a freshman through old-fashioned recruiting, and guard Cam Spencer transferred from Rutgers.

"They fit," Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. "Their staff has done an incredible job of evaluating the guys that fit them."

The Illini have supplemented a team that lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last year and hasn't been to a regional final since making it to the 2005 championship game.

Forward Marcus Domask transferred from Southern Illinois. Forward Quincy Guerrier spent two seasons apiece at Syracuse and Oregon. Guard Terrence Shannon Jr. spent three years at Texas Tech. Center Dain Dainja came over after a year at Baylor.

They joined forward Coleman Hawkins, who has stuck around in Champaign for four years, and guard Ty Rogers, who is in his second year with the Illini.

"We've found success in the portal and at a very, very high level based on character. Based on not just talent," said Underwood, whose team reached the Elite Eight with a 72-69 win over Iowa State on Thursday night.

"We've got great carryover in our program. So we've added the right pieces. But it's got to be the right mesh," Underwood said. "In our case, it's been about: Yeah, they've got to be good. But it's the right character pieces."

At UConn, the new players complemented guard Tristen Newton, who joined the Huskies for their title run last year after three years at East Carolina. While forward Alex Karaban was a freshman for the national championship team, and so was center Donovan Clingan, who at 7-foot-2 could have been a first-round NBA Draft pick but decided to come back for more seasoning.

"I really feel like I wanted to come back and prove what I could do," he said. "The college game's as fun as it gets. Winning a national championship, I definitely wanted to try to compete for another one."

Hurley said NIL money that wouldn't have been available to Clingan even five years ago can ease the loss of an NBA paycheck. But mostly it was the 20-year-old Connecticut native's maturity in understanding that he still had to improve to play in the NBA.

"There's no rush to get to professional sports, the NBA, the NFL with what you can earn as a college athlete [now]," Hurley said. "If you're physically and emotionally not ready to go into a man's world, and your game is not there; if you're emotionally, in terms of maturation, not ready to be in that world with grown-ass men, fighting for your life on a daily basis in that league, then you should return to college.

"The objective is not getting drafted to the NBA," Hurley said. "The objective is to have a 12-to-15-year career in the NBA, and Donovan wasn't ready for that last year. He's a very self-aware kid."

Reporting by The Associated Press.

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