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With its first Big East Tournament title in 13 years, UConn will arrive at Big Dance as beast of the bracket

NEW YORK — This is college basketball royalty. 

Blue blood programs don’t just win championships, they do so by making it look easy despite carrying the burden of expectations and living as the Goliath in every game they play. 

That’s UConn

On Saturday night, Dan Hurley’s program added another trophy to its case, and even if it comes as little surprise that the Huskies hauled past Marquette 73-57 at Madison Square Garden, let’s do some quick accounting on the status of one of the most impressive units in all of American sports. 

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“Someday you’re going to hear that noise coming from the Knicks locker room and it’s going to be the Knicks,” said a security officer named Mark, who was left to guard the entrance of Connecticut’s loud lair. Nearly an hour after the game went final, UConn’s locker room was an audible carnival, the hooting and hollering bursting into the hallway outside.

The Huskies hauled their first Big East Tournament since 2011 — the year Kemba Walker carried UConn to a Big East title and then a national title. That was the school’s seventh. It had to wait 13 years, but now it finally has No. 8. And it’s the fifth time Connecticut has swept the Big East regular season and postseason titles. 

And now, thanks to losses Saturday from fellow No. 1 seeds Purdue and Houston, the Huskies seem to have the lead for the No. 1 overall seed on Selection Sunday.

If it happens, that’ll be a Connecticut first as well.

In less than a year, Hurley has taken this program to every height imaginable: an NCAA championship in dominant fashion, then a follow-up season with a 21-2 record vs. Big East brethren, an undisputed reign over the league it founded in 1979, and a most-cherished mid-March Saturday night celebration in Midtown Manhattan. If you need more, he also finally ended UConn’s 10-year drought against ranked teams on the road; the Huskies have won five straight games vs. AP Top-10 teams for first time since 1998-99; and at “Storrs South,” Connecticut was 7-0 this season. 

“We’ve done a lot of historic things. I know we’ve never gotten the No. 1 overall seed in program history, but this is a group that seems to be making history at a place that’s hard to make history,” Hurley said. 

Bingo. 

Hurley’s more than made the program in his image; he’s hand-carved a one-of-a-kind operation with his maniacal drive, his insatiable desire to chase every victory, no matter how big or small, and snatch it with his hands still buzzing. No slight against him or his team goes unseen. There is always a scoreboard. 

“We’ve clearly been the best program in the country this year,” Hurley said. 

Not Houston. Not Purdue. Nobody else.

No one can argue it. After Houston got shockingly shellacked against Iowa State in the Big 12 Tournament final on Saturday, the Huskies overtook the Cougars at KenPom.com. They are now No. 1 for the first time this season. But having watched this team all season long, one thing has been obvious and seldom in doubt: Connecticut’s best is better than every other team’s best. 

With a Big East sweep, the Huskies will strut into Selection Sunday as the team best equipped to repeat as national champions since Florida did it in 2006 and 2007. Villanova in 2017 is the most recent valid candidate for this, and that was a very good team, but it wasn’t as lethal as this UConn group. What does it say about Connecticut that it played its B-game overall in the past three days against Xavier, St. John’s (which got a season-high 90 on the Huskies) and shorthanded Marquette, which was without team MVP Tyler Kolek?

It’s third gear is like a sixth gear for most others.

UConn has grown into something monstrous. It has the perfect alignment of coach, philosophy, attitude and execution. And as Hurley mentioned multiple times over the past two nights, the team seems to be doing it despite allegations of other schools trying to poach some of its players. (The transfer portal will officially open Monday, which is terrible timing and must be fixed ASAP.)

“We’re not doing what a lot of programs are doing this time of year, even while other they’re playing, through third parties, trying to pull people off other teams,” Hurley said. 

He’s been direct about it. Public. He’s pissed off and he has every right to be. 

How does UConn find more motivation to repeat as national champions after winning a Big East title and checking every box? Maybe it’s a rally in the program sparked by things like that. I don’t know if UConn will be able to pull off six straight wins and enter the rarified air of becoming back-to-back national champions. But I do know I won’t be shocked whatsoever if it happens; I’ll be shocked if this team isn’t playing three weeks from tonight in Arizona, in fact. 

Tristen Newton, the 2024 Big East Tournament Most Valuable Player, left the postgame presser with his trophy in hand. He said he intended to walk the streets of Manhattan back to the team hotel. I hope he did. That guy is a joy to watch on the court. His leadership and consistency has placed him as a First Team All-American as far as I’m concerned.  

As if UConn needed anything more to make this a legendary night, consider: Newton went for 13 points and 10 assists. He became the second player in a Big East title game to have double-figure assists since Syracuse‘s Pearl Washington in 1984. And Donovan Clingan? Big players show up in big games and reinforce their bigness: Clingan had 22 points and 16 rebounds in what started off as an ugly game before ending in a signature UConn runaway. Clingan became the first person to have at least 20 points and 15 rebounds in a Big East title game since a guy named Patrick Ewing did it … in 1984.

Sounds like a pretty good game they played in this building 40 years ago. 

That ’84 title game ended with Georgetown beating Syracuse by double digits to sweep the Big East regular season and postseason titles before going on to win a national title. Past is prologue? 

UConn ripped the torch from Villanova, then Marquette, and has claimed king status in this basketball-loving league. If you think this team and school and staff and players have nothing left to prove, then you lost the plot. There is always another goal to chase, another team to annihilate, another trophy to win. Connecticut screams into the NCAA Tournament as the beast of the bracket, and it will take something borderline miraculous to take this team down. 

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