UConn men, three wins from repeat, face Illinois in Elite Eight

AP photo by Michael Dwyer / Members of the UConn men's basketball team begin to celebrate shortly before the end of their NCAA tournament Sweet 16 victory against San Diego State on Thursday night in Boston.
AP photo by Michael Dwyer / Members of the UConn men's basketball team begin to celebrate shortly before the end of their NCAA tournament Sweet 16 victory against San Diego State on Thursday night in Boston.

BOSTON — The University of Connecticut is trying to become the first men's basketball team to win back-to-back NCAA Division I championships in 17 years, but the Huskies might take on another label in the long run.

With three more March Madness wins, they could wind up as the last team ever to repeat as champion.

"It's tough. It's not easy," UConn coach Dan Hurley said Friday as his Huskies (34-3), the tourney's overall No. 1 seed, prepared to play East Region No. 3 seed Illinois (29-8) in an Elite Eight matchup Saturday. "It's going to get tougher."

Repeating has never been easy, though longtime UCLA coach John Wooden figured it out pretty well with the Bruins, who won seven in a row from 1967-73 with a cast of stars that included Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (known then as Lew Alcindor) and Bill Walton.

The tournament was much different then, with a smaller field that included only one team from each of the major conferences. And players would stay at one school, unable to leave early for the NBA or easily transfer. Even when Duke repeated in 1991-92 and Florida did it in 2006-07, it was a much different era.

With the advent of the transfer portal and the one-and-done pro prospect — along with name, image and likeness deals that can lure players elsewhere — building a team for the long term has largely gone the way of the two-handed set shot.

"Oh, it's harder. It's way harder," said Hurley, a Seton Hall point guard in the 1990s. "Obviously, you're managing your roster with the portal, with NIL. You'd better be a more skilled coach these days, because you're dealing with a lot more stuff.

"For us, I think we've made it look easy in these past two tournaments. But it's hard."

UConn, the Big East champ, beat San Diego State 82-52 in the Sweet 16 on Thursday night in a rematch of last year's title game, becoming the first reigning national champs since the Gators in 2007 to make it back to the Elite Eight. Even so, this year's Huskies are much different than last year's NCAA champions.

Now in the NBA are Jordan Hawkins (New Orleans Pelicans), Andre Jackson (Milwaukee Bucks) and Adama Sanogo (Chicago Bulls). Stephon Castle arrived as a freshman through old-fashioned recruiting, and fellow guard Cam Spencer transferred from Rutgers.

"They fit," Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. "Their staff has done an incredible job of evaluating the guys that fit them."

  photo  AP photo by Michael Dwyer / llinois guard Terrence Shannon Jr. celebrates after a dunk against Iowa State during an NCAA tournament Sweet 16 game Thursday in Boston.

Meanwhile, the Fighting Illini have supplemented their roster after losing in the first round of the NCAA tourney last year. The program hasn't been to a regional final since making it to the 2005 championship game.

Forward Marcus Domask transferred from Southern Illinois. Forward Quincy Guerrier spent two seasons apiece at Syracuse and Oregon. Guard Terrence Shannon Jr. spent three years at Texas Tech. Center Dain Dainja came over after a year at Baylor.

They joined forward Coleman Hawkins, who has stuck around in Champaign for four years, and guard Ty Rogers, who is in his second year with the Illini.

"We've found success in the portal and at a very, very high level based on character. Based on not just talent," said Underwood, whose team reached the Elite Eight with a 72-69 win over Iowa State on Thursday night.

"We've got great carryover in our program. So we've added the right pieces. But it's got to be the right mesh," Underwood said. "In our case, it's been about: Yeah, they've got to be good. But it's the right character pieces."

At UConn, the new players complemented guard Tristen Newton, who joined the Huskies for their title run last year after three years at East Carolina. Forward Alex Karaban was a freshman for the national championship team, and so was center Donovan Clingan, who at 7-foot-2 could have been a first-round draft pick but decided to come back for more seasoning before turning pro.

"I really feel like I wanted to come back and prove what I could do," he said. "The college game's as fun as it gets. Winning a national championship, I definitely wanted to try to compete for another one."

Hurley said NIL money that wouldn't have been available to Clingan even five years ago can ease the loss of an NBA paycheck. But mostly it was the 20-year-old Connecticut native recognizing he still had to improve to play at the highest level of the sport.

"There's no rush to get to professional sports, the NBA, the NFL with what you can earn as a college athlete," Hurley said of the change from just a few years ago. "If you're physically and emotionally not ready to go into a man's world, and your game is not there, if you're emotionally, in terms of maturation, not ready to be in that world with grown-ass men, fighting for your life on a daily basis in that league, then you should return to college.

"The objective is not getting drafted to the NBA. The objective is to have a 12-to-15-year career in the NBA, and Donovan wasn't ready for that last year. He's a very self-aware kid."

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