ALBANY, N.Y. — It took until Year 5, but UConn basketball is officially all the way back under Dan Hurley.
The Huskies took a bus trip to New York's capital city, over from central Connecticut, and made quick work to reinforce their credentials in this wild 2023 NCAA Tournament. Hurley's team just dusted a twosome of Gaels in three days' time — Iona and Saint Mary's — beating their overmatched semi-challengers by a combined 39 points in the first two rounds of the tournament.
The only thing eating at Hurley heading into this season was not having an NCAA Tournament win at UConn on his résumé. He took care of that on Friday vs. Iona. Sunday night felt like a formal proceeding to get UConn to the second weekend, which is exactly where this team belongs.
Look out, because UConn is playing up to the hype. Not as the No. 4 seed in the West Region — as the fourth-ranked team at KenPom.com. No school was better than its seed in this year's bracket than these Huskies, and that's proven true through the first weekend of the NCAAs. UConn's been a metrics darling dating back to November, when it surprisingly bulldozed its way to an early season tournament title at the Nike PK85 event.
There was a bizarre dip in January that saw the Huskies drop six of eight games, but it's been a return to form since. A worse team would've gone sideways. UConn became tougher.
"Just taking body blows, it's what we've been able to do through even quality teams through the course of the year," Hurley said. "Eventually, I think we're able to break some teams."
On Sunday at MVP Arena, the long-awaited return to the Sweet 16. The Huskies are headed to Las Vegas to play ninth-seeded Arkansas. It's the first time UConn's made the second weekend since 2014 — the last time it won a national title.
Now this team is cresting and carving and two wins away from its sixth Final Four appearance.
"I mean, can we get a little bit of credit?" UConn assistant Luke Murray said. Murray was scrolling through UConn's KenPom page on his phone in the coaches' locker room as he asked the semi-rhetorical question. "We have the No. 3 offense in the country. They say Coach Hurley can't coach offense. We have the No. 14 defense in the country, too. I mean, you know, maybe it's something."
More than something: Connecticut has a little bit of everything. Watching the Huskies up close this season, there's a lot on this roster that flashes visions of some of Jim Calhoun's more intimidating UConn teams from yesteryear. Saint Mary's specialized in putting teams in vise and making them play through molasses. Instead, UConn was the sixth team to hit 70 on the Gaels.
Huskies center Adama Sanogo was tremendous here in Albany, scoring 52 points and snaring 21 rebounds in the pair of victories. He's the first player since Oklahoma's Blake Griffin to have more than 50 points, 20 rebounds and shoot 70% or better through the first weekend of the tournament. Beyond Sanogo's impressive work, Jordan Hawkins, Andre Jackson, Tristen Newton and Donovan Clingan all made it impossible for Iona, then Saint Mary's, to keep pace.
UConn's just better, the whole way up and down. In the past three days, it's reminded a tournament-obsessed nation why, at their best, these Huskies can play with — and beat — anyone in this bracket.
Back in October, Hurley believed this. I sat down with him after a preseason practice and he laid out his case. Hurley isn't exactly a portrait of optimism at all times, so for him to be all-in before playing a game was surprising. But he saw it then. He said Jordan Hawkins has "gotta get to 15 points per game."
Hawkins is averaging 15.9.
After losing NCAA Tournament games the past two years, Hurley had UConn pushing this season with a hunter's mindset and, as he said on Sunday night, was haunted by failing to make a Sweet 16 to this point in his career.
"I had an unbelievable Rhode Island team that Year 5 that lost a brutal game against Oregon in a game we should have won," Hurley said.
He can shed the guilt.
No matter that this program becomes the hunted when it's ranked, regardless of its pedigree. Remain aggressive. Be a menace. Do it organically, and build your own motivations from scratch. That's Hurley's philosophy and his team adapted it. UConn lost a draft pick (Tyrese Martin) and came in second, third or fourth in a few portal battles.
Didn't matter. This is one of the deepest, most talented teams the program's ever had. There's a case it's the best non-title-winning Huskies team — and there's still time for that disclaimer to be eradicated.
"Getting to the second weekend and being a part of the Sweet 16, that's a big part of why he came to UConn in the first place," Murray told CBS Sports. "I'm sure he feels on top of the world right now."
The standard at UConn is success in March and playing into April — and winning it all. The program's four national titles since 1999 are the most in the sport. As these things go, NCAA Tournament wins are the necessary evidence to national validation.
"From Day 1, this was far away," Huskies assistant Kimani Young said. The program was adrift when Hurley and Young started the rebuild. It was in the American Athletic Conference and had fallen back in the landscape of college sports.
That invited bitterness from some portions of the fan base. Even still, that negativity wasn't able to be kept at the door this season. This team has been through a lot of nonsense in terms of social media dragging of some players.
"Playing at UConn, you deal with a lot more pressure and criticism and, like, immediate meltdowns on social media when you lose," Hurley said. "I think in the first and even second round of tournaments, it's more of a burden to play at UConn than it is an advantage."
On Friday and Sunday, we saw UConn play with verve, joy and resoluteness. The players were downright symphonic for stretches against Iona and Saint Mary's. It all filters down from Hurley, who can lose himself on the sidelines, sometimes in hilarious fashion, but it all boils from a core that is emotionally invested in ways few other coaches can, or even want to, match.
He's exactly who UConn needed in order to be back where it is, right in this moment.
"It's been great because he makes you feel like a player again," Young said. "He's always pushing you. He's always motivating you to get better."
Now, what awaits? The Huskies like the West, remember. All three Calhoun teams that won national titles in '99, '04 and '11 needed to advance through that corner of the bracket in order to hoist a trophy. We'll see.
What's for sure: Something was exorcised here in Albany. Hurley and this program returned to their perch among college basketball's best.
"Now you get to the Sweet 16, you can really just kind of go out and just let it rip," Hurley said.
Oh, is that how it's going to be? UConn's going to just suddenly loosen up now?
Look out. The Huskies remain on the hunt and have nothing to lose.