HOUSTON — The ball was on the baseline, in nearly an impossible spot, the pass needing to be sent through a thicket of bodies out to the perimeter where Alex Karaban had snuck away from everyone. Only UConn’s Tristen Newton knew where the 6-foot-8 sharpshooter was, and even with his lower body inches from going out of bounds, he fired the ball exactly where it had to go.
That was how the first half ended in UConn’s 72-59 deconstruction of Miami in Saturday’s second national men’s semifinal, and though the game was not technically over, it might as well have been.
If Miami didn’t know it before, they certainly had to at that moment. UConn just had too many options, too many answers. And with each game on the march to Monday night, the Huskies have proven they’re beyond good.
They’re inevitable. And San Diego State is going to be the next to find out.
Sure, with the caveat that anything can happen in a 40-minute basketball game with college players, there has been no indication during the entirety of this NCAA tournament that UConn is anything other than the best team in the country.
And it hasn’t been particularly close.
In a college basketball season that has been defined by parity, we are 40 minutes away from UConn ramping through an entire bracket without even a hint of drama. The margins of victory: 24, 15, 23, 28 and 13, with the last one still pending. Even for some of the historically great teams who have emerged as champions, a tournament this clean and dominant simply does not happen.
“I just think when we’re playing harder than the other team, which is our calling card, going plus-9 on the glass, playing elite defense and having a lot of answers on offense, there’s nowhere where we’re weak as a team,” coach Dan Hurley said. “And we’re deep. So we’re able to kind of body-blow our opponent and continue to just put together quality possessions at both ends, and it has a cumulative effect and it’s been able to break opponents.”
Maybe the Aztecs can be the team that finally makes UConn dig deep. But the Huskies are so well-constructed, it takes a lot of things going wrong to put them in position to lose.
Andre Jackson, their do-everything wing who guards the opponent’s best player, gets two fouls in the first five minutes and has to be glued to the bench? No problem.
Jordan Hawkins, maybe the best shooter in the country, makes one basket in the first half after spending the last two days sick in bed? Big deal.
These are not the problems that bother Hurley. He can just flip the lineup and play with three big bodies who all do different things and collectively devastate what opponents want to do offensively.
“We were just all over our identity today,” Hurley said.
Miami had come back from a 13-point deficit in the Elite Eight game against Texas, but when Karaban’s 3-pointer went through the net on the last possession of the first half, this felt entirely different.
Miami, an outstanding team that won the ACC regular-season title, was simply out of its league. The advanced metrics say the Hurricanes were one of the five best offensive teams in the country this season. Against UConn, they had maybe a handful of possessions in the entire game where they got good shots out of their halfcourt offense.
The rest of the time, they were forced to score over arms and bodies that always seemed to be in the right place. It was a struggle for Miami even to make layups. Matched with the relentlessness and intensity that Hurley demands with every possession, playing UConn doesn’t look like a whole lot of fun.
“It all starts with defense,” Hawkins said. “On the defensive end, we’ve been very elite, taking away matchups, rebounding the ball, getting out in transition. We’re playing to our strengths.”
Maybe the better question at this juncture is how did the Huskies lose eight games this season?
Hurley’s explanation is that UConn’s stretch of six losses from New Year’s Eve until the end of January was the product of defensive slippage and some close, meat-grinder road losses in the Big East against teams that know them well. Once they exited the most difficult part of their schedule and started defending again, the Huskies got back to being the team that started the season 14-0, including a 15-point win over Alabama in November.
Maybe that should have been the clue that UConn, despite being a No. 4 seed, was ready to roll.
“I just think the group has shown their quality so many times in terms of the level we could play at,” Hurley said. “I think we experienced everything in that month of January. It’s a battle-tested team.”
And now UConn stands at the precipice of winning its fifth national title in the last 24 years, a truly unthinkable run for a program whose greatness was built by Jim Calhoun, thrown into disarray during the Kevin Ollie era and now completely restored by Hurley.
Should the Huskies win, they’ll have as many championships as Indiana and Duke in their history and more this century than Kansas, Kentucky and UCLA combined.
That is heavy-duty stuff for a program without the historic blueblood label, but UConn doesn’t need the validation of dusty banners to justify where it sits in the college basketball hierarchy.
In the here and now, nobody is doing it better. With one more win, that won’t be in dispute.