ALBANY — The rebuilding of proud programs is never easy.
It takes some level of growing pains, and Dan Hurley and the UConn Huskies have certainly endured them.
But sometimes, rebuilds work and bring the program back to what it was.
It paid off for the Huskies on Sunday, beating Saint Mary’s in the round of 32 of the NCAA tournament 70-55 at MVP Arena to advance to the Sweet 16.
When Hurley was hired by the school’s administration in 2018, he was tasked with leading a program that had won a pair of national championships in the past decade, but had to fire former head coach Kevin Ollie, the man who led the Huskies to the 2014 national title, amidst an NCAA investigation.
The program had to vacate two years worth of wins.
Hurley and the Huskies struggled mightily in his first year at the helm, finishing 6-12 in the American Athletic Conference, something of an island of misfit toys when it comes to how the league is seen around the college basketball landscape.
Two years later, the program was back in the NCAA tournament, having re-joined the Big East, but endured a first-round loss as a No. 7 seed in the 2021 NCAA tournament.
A year later, the program became an upset victim, falling to New Mexico State as a No. 4 seed in the first round.
“The program, from a culture standpoint, from a talent standpoint, a confidence standpoint, a conference standpoint, we needed to learn and upgrade the talent and develop a culture and a work ethic for them,” Hurley said. “Like, learn how to win again. Just because you won national championships and Big East championships, once everyone that was part of those things is gone, that doesn’t help you. If anything, at times, it’s a burden.”
The Huskies started this season 14-0 and got as high as the No. 2-ranked team in the nation, but followed it up with a cold stretch where they lost six of eight and nearly dropped out of The Associated Press Top 25.
However, the Huskies got hot again at the right time, closing the regular season by winning eight of nine, reaching the semifinals of the Big East tournament and now advancing to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2014. By doing so, they have earned a trip to Las Vegas for a date with eighth-seeded Arkansas on Thursday night.
“Two super talented teams. I’ve seen them a bunch. An up-and-down game,” Hurley said. “It may be the most fan-friendly game of the Sweet 16.”
Other coaches praised the Huskies throughout the weekend.
“They’ve got all the metrics to win a national championship,” Iona head coach Rick Pitino said following his team’s loss to the Huskies in the first round on Friday. “Their backup units are just as good as their starters. So they’ve got it all.”
Friday’s win was the first NCAA tournament win for the program since 2016.
Adama Sanogo played like a national championship player on Sunday, scoring 24 points on 11-of-16 shooting and grabbed eight rebounds. Tristen Newton finished with 13 points, and Jordan Hawkins had 12, including some big-time 3-pointers that blew the roof off of MVP Arena.
“The last couple years, March Madness was not good for us,” Sanogo said. “But that was a different team. Coach makes sure we are not thinking about that too much, and he makes sure we are understanding that this is a different team and this is one of the best teams he ever coached.”
With the talent that the Huskies boast and the ability to play with anyone in the nation, this run might be the start of something special in Storrs once again.
“I think at the beginning of the season, I felt the confidence in the group,” said guard and Amsterdam native Andre Jackson, who finished with six points in the win. “[During the rough stretch], we knew what we were capable of. It was about reaching our potential and staying true to ourselves and staying true to the work.”
GAZETTE COVERAGEEnsure access to everything we do, today and every day, check out our subscribe page at DailyGazette.com/Subscribe
More from The Daily Gazette:
Categories: College Sports, Email Newsletter, Sports, Sports