UConn is in class of its own as it eyes rare national championship repeat


There is no 1A and 1B. There aren’t multiple favorites. It is not Connecticut, Purdue and everyone else.

Purdue belongs in the latter category. UConn is a category unto itself.

This weekend presented the perfect example. Saturday afternoon, the NCAA Tournament selection committee presented its top-16 seeds if it was picking the bracket at that time.

Purdue was No. 1, and that choice was understandable. The Boilermakers were 15-2 in Quad 1 and 2 games, and own victories over, among others, Gonzaga, Tennessee, Marquette, Alabama, Arizona, Illinois and Wisconsin. Six of those were either on the road or at neutral sites and Purdue has six wins over the other top-15 teams in the seeding reveal. UConn, ranked first in the Associated Press poll, had two.

But then, the Huskies went out and obliterated No. 4 Marquette, treating the Golden Eagles like they were DePaul. The 28-point victory was the largest margin of victory in a top-five matchup in conference play in the history of the AP poll. Purdue, meanwhile, lost at Ohio State, which had lost nine of its previous 11 games and fired its coach, Chris Holtmann, this past week.

UConn center Donovan Clingan dunks behind Marquette guard Tyler Kolek. AP

But this is less about Purdue and more about Connecticut. This team has no weakness. It is big, physical and dynamic at both ends of the floor, ranked third in offensive efficiency and 11th on defense. Just an absolute wagon. The Huskies are undefeated when at full strength. Fantastic freshman Stephon Castle missed a four-point loss at Big 12 powerhouse Kansas on Dec. 1. In a Dec. 20 loss at Seton Hall, star center Donovan Clingan only played 15 minutes due to a foot injury.

UConn hasn’t just won a nation-leading 14 straight games, it has done so in emphatic fashion. Those 14 wins have come by an average of 16.8 points, and five of them were without the dominant Clingan. The Huskies have answers upon answers. They’ve had six different leading scorers this season. Reserve guard Hassan Diarra has emerged as a key cog off the bench.

Prior to Connecticut’s second game against St. John’s a few weeks ago, Rick Pitino said he thought these Huskies were better than last year’s version. He faced that group in the first round of the NCAA Tournament as Iona University’s coach. I have started to become convinced, particularly since Castle and Clingan — two potential lottery picks — have taken major steps forward of late.

Two experts believe that if Connecticut and Purdue met on a neutral court it would be a close betting line. Chris Andrews, the sports book director at The South Point Hotel Casino, predicted the spread to be minus-3 in favor of the Huskies. SuperBook Sports Executive Vice President Jay Korengay suggested it would be minus-1 for UConn. Hopefully, we get this matchup in March — or possibly April.

UConn coach Danny Hurley AP

I fully expect the Huskies to reach Phoenix for the Final Four. In fact, you can have the field in next month’s NCAA Tournament. I’ll take rampaging Connecticut. Our first repeat champion since Florida in 2006-07 isn’t just in play. It feels likely.

All aboard the carousel

Already, there are two high-major openings — at DePaul and Ohio State — and plenty more expected on the way. Louisville is the most talked about one, with Kenny Payne almost certainly on the way out with a ghastly 12-45 record at one of the best jobs in the country. But Arizona State (Bobby Hurley), Oklahoma State (Mike Boynton), Washington (Mike Hopkins), Stanford (Jerod Haase), Michigan (Juwan Howard) and Vanderbilt (Jerry Stackhouse) are potentially others.

It figures to be a fascinating coaching carousel season, not because of merely those aforementioned schools, but with several high profile coaches having down years and possibly looking to move on. Mick Cronin and Eric Musselman are the names you hear the most in that regard. May of Florida Atlantic was a hot name last year, and will remain one, particularly if the Owls can make another March run. Two very interesting names that have been floated already for Ohio State: Sean Miller of Xavier and Greg McDermott of Creighton.

The silly season has the chance to be extra silly this year, especially when you take into account the movement of the transfer portal that has turned into college basketball’s version of free agency.

Game of the Week

No. 10 Iowa State at No. 3 Houston, Monday, 9 p.m.

Houston’s first year in the rugged Big 12 has been more successful than anyone could have expected. The Cougars have won eight of their last nine league games — the one loss was at Kansas — and sit atop the best conference in the country. This week could determine whether they win the Big 12. They host co-leader Iowa State on Monday then visit second-place and 12th-ranked Baylor on Saturday. Houston is a perfect 14-0 at the Fertitta Center and have won its six home league games by at least 15 points.

Joseph Tugler #25 of the Houston Cougars and Elmarko Jackson #13 of the Kansas Jayhawks compete for a loose ball during the second half of the game at Allen Fieldhouse on February 03, 2024. Getty Images


1. Connecticut, Purdue, Houston, Arizona

2. Tennessee, Kansas, North Carolina, Marquette

3. Baylor, Alabama, Iowa State, Auburn

4. Illinois, Creighton, Duke, Dayton

Stock Watch

Amir Abdur-Rahim – Up

There may not be a first-year coach doing a better job in the entire country than Abdur-Rahim. South Florida had suffered through 10 losing seasons in the last 11 years. It won fewer than 10 games five times in that span. He has turned it around quickly, guiding the Bulls to a 19-5 mark and first place in the AAC after knocking off No. 24 Florida Atlantic on Sunday. A year ago, he took Kennesaw State to its first NCAA Tournament ever.

Amir Abdur-Rahim AP

Nate Oats – Up

He lost all three of his assistant coaches in the offseason and five of his top-six scorers. A step back wasn’t just expected, it would’ve been understandable. It didn’t stop the Alabama coach from scheduling incredibly tough — the Crimson Tide faced the likes of Creighton, Purdue, Oregon and Clemson during the non-conference schedule — which sure seems to have paid off. Alabama is all alone atop the SEC, and looking like a Final Four contender led by a high-octane offense that averages 90.7 points per game. Oats deserves heavy National Coach of the Year consideration.

Jay Williams – Down

For his outlandish take that Iowa superstar Caitlin Clark is not great in his mind because she hasn’t led the Hawkeyes to any national championships. The ESPN analyst did credit Clark for being a prolific scorer a few days after she became the women’s all-time scoring leader, but because she hasn’t won it all yet, in his mind she isn’t a great player. He also compared her to UConn legends who won titles, which is also absurd when you consider the talent on those teams. So that means that Williams doesn’t think players like Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing, Dan Marino and Barry Sanders were great, either. Just an archaic way of thinking.

Memphis – Down

After consecutive wins in mid-December over Texas A&M, Clemson and Virginia, Memphis looked like a dangerous second-weekend team. Now, after suffering double-digit losses to North Texas and SMU last week, it will have to win the AAC Tournament just to reach the dance. It is now 7-6 in the mediocre-at-best conference with a plummeting NET ranking of 81. On paper, it is a good team, led by high-impact transfers David Jones (St. John’s), Jahvon Quinerly (Alabama) and NaeQwan Tomlin (Kansas State). That’s a lot of talent for so much mediocrity.


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