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College Basketball

UConn Imposed Some Normalcy On The Weirdest NCAA Tournament Ever

Connecticut poses for a team photo
Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

The 2023 men's NCAA Tournament confounded almost all predictions, but the title game offered a clear choice between atypical and recognizable. On the left was five-seed San Diego State, making the Mountain West's and its own inaugural trip to the Final Four, having won back-to-back nail-biters against a six in Creighton and a nine in Florida Atlantic. On the right was Connecticut, a Big East brand name that had won three titles since the Big Ten last won one. Though their fourth-seeded placement didn't afford them a ton of respect, the Huskies came into this tournament as a contender, 10th in the AP Poll and fourth in Kenpom. Outside of a forgettable stretch from Dec. 31 to Jan. 25, this team only lost two games all year. Their path to the finals was easier than it could have been, with only third-seeded Gonzaga offering a challenge higher than a five, but UConn steamrolled every opponent put in front of them, winning their closest game by 13 points.

After a month filled with shocks and Cinderellas, it would have been fitting to see SDSU conjure one more magical win. But UConn spent this entire tournament yawning at the alleged "madness" that permeates March, and on Monday night, with a 76-59 victory, they clinched another championship with another straightforwardly superior performance by a group that can legitimately claim to be the best in the country.

There was a brief burst of hot shooting at the start of this contest, but it quickly became a struggle for SDSU to score. For 11 grueling minutes, as UConn built out its lead, the Aztecs did not make a single field goal, as the Huskies did an excellent job both limiting second chances and unsettling their opponents in the paint. Adama Sanogo, the disruptive UConn big, earned MOP honors by notching his third straight double-double, and his imposing presence was the piece de resistance in a Huskies defensive front that caused SDSU to miss 10 out of 11 contested paint shots in the first half. In a couple of especially critical swings, the Aztec offense made mistakes under their own basket that UConn capitalized on with quick threes at the other end.

SDSU came out a little friskier in the second half, but the 12-point lead UConn had built served to insulate the Huskies from the anxiety of the Aztecs' inevitable run. With a little over five minutes to go, San Diego State finally enjoyed a stretch where they were making more shots than the other guys, and they shrunk the lead all the way down to 60-55. But Jordan Hawkins, UConn's most dangerous shooter, put a lid on any simmering comeback hopes with a cold-blooded three.

"They're just normal men" is maybe not as thrilling a story for a national championship as an unprecedented SDSU or FAU title run might have been. But for UConn basketball, this is a stabilizing moment as well as a joyful one. Jim Calhoun built this program into a national power, and Kevin Ollie steered a sinking ship into an unexpected title in 2014. In the ensuing years, UConn had to weather the irrelevance of the American Conference they had fallen into after the old Big East broke up, the prying eyes of NCAA busybodies who popped them for some laughably small violations, and flat-out failure on the court. Dan Hurley took over after Ollie's acrimonious departure, oversaw the return to the Big East, and recruited the guys who would restore UConn's preeminence. When they beat Iona last month, it was UConn's first tourney win since the 2016 opening round, but the Huskies, even if they stayed under the radar for a while, are back to being a college basketball powerhouse. Unlike everything else in this tournament, it feels familiar.

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