Since their initial breakthrough in 1999, no team in college basketball has won more national championships than Connecticut. The Huskies have cut down the nets four times in the past 18 years, once more than both the Duke team they defeated in that ‘99 title game and the Blue Devils’ famous arch-rival North Carolina.
In spite of this, UConn suddenly finds itself slipping from college basketball’s top tier. In something resembling the blink of an eye, the Huskies have morphed from superpower to being on the verge of moving back from the forefront of the collective mind of the sport’s fan base. Because of this, they are perhaps the most intriguing program in the entire country at the moment.
Despite their recent propensity for winning national titles, Connecticut hasn’t been seeded better seventh in an NCAA Tournament since 2011. The Huskies haven’t been a No. 1 seed since 2009. Still, there is more hope for the future of the program and more faith in its head coach than you might expect the fan base of a perennial powerhouse with a sub-par recent history to have.
Kevin Ollie was dealt a rough hand. Not in terms of the roster he inherited or the facilities he was privy to, but in terms of the standard he had to live up to. Fewer programs in any sport owe more credit for their success than UConn men’s basketball does to Jim Calhoun. When Calhoun arrived at UConn in 1986, the program had produced just four NCAA Tournament wins in its entire existence. Calhoun molded the Huskies into a force, taking them to four Final Fours and winning three national titles before announcing his retirement in 2012. Ollie was being asked to replace a man who was more synonymous with the Connecticut basketball program than the mascot.
Ollie had something of a safety net in year one given the fact that the Huskies had been banned from postseason play because of its sub-standard APR scores. He led the team on a so-so 20-10 campaign, good enough for them to finish tied for seventh in the final year of the old Big East.
Expectations were enormous in 2013-14, and for the most part Ollie’s team failed to live up to them. UConn struggled to a somewhat disappointing 23-8 regular season mark, good enough to earn only a No. 7 seed on Selection Sunday. Then came the Big Dance, a magical three-week run that initially looked like it wouldn’t last more than a day. In the first round of the tournament, Connecticut trailed 10th-seeded Saint Joseph’s by three with just 49 seconds to play. The Huskies ultimately forced overtime and prevailed in the extra frame, setting the stage for one of the more improbable tournament runs in recent memory, one which ended with a national championship game victory over Kentucky.
The succeeding years have only made UConn’s improbable run in 2014 more crucial to both the program and its head coach. The Huskies were relegated to the NIT in 2015, would have likely suffered a similar fate the next year had it not been for a miracle 70-foot shot in the AAC tournament, and finished with a losing record of 16-17 last season.
In addition to a string of seasons that have fallen below the standard set by Calhoun, Connecticut is also still adjusting to the reality of its conference situation. There’s an easy argument to make that no program lost more in the most recent helping of conference realignment than Connecticut did. The Huskies were seen by many as the favorites to claim the ACC spot left vacant by Maryland when the Terps fled for the Big Ten. That space was ultimately awarded to Louisville, leaving UConn in the unenviable position of staring down an indeterminate tenure as a member of the American Athletic Conference.
So why the hope for the future? Why the continued faith in Ollie? Why the belief that Connecticut’s status as a top 10 program in college basketball can be maintained despite not playing in a top six conference?
The initial answer is that this is program that can still attract top-tier talent. Even though it’s struggled during the current and most recent recruiting cycles, UConn brought in a top 10 class in 2016. Still, 247 Sports ranked Ollie’s 2017 class as just the 81st-best in the country, and he’s already been told “thanks but no thanks” by a handful of his top targets in the 2018 class.
The second response is that injuries decimated a preseason top 20 team a year ago, and the bulk of that talent is back and healthy for 2017-18. While there’s no question that injuries played an enormous role in UConn going 16-17 last season, it’s also too convenient an excuse to forgive the totality of the four month disaster. Yes Alterique Gilbert and Terry Larrier went down with injuries before the season even reached December, but it’s worth noting that the team was basically at full strength when it opened the campaign with back-to-back home losses to Wagner and Northeastern. Something was wrong with the 2016-17 Huskies before injuries torpedoed any chance the team had of making things right.
The final justification for optimism in 2017-18 and beyond is that Ollie has consistently churned out stars at the guard position, and he has a guy capable of being one of the best players in the country this season in Jalen Adams. Without much support a year ago, Adams led UConn in both points (14.4 ppg) and assists (6.1 apg). A healthy Gilbert and Larrier will force defenses to stop keying entirely on Adams, which should allow him both to shoot at a higher percentage and get to the free-throw line more as a junior. Don’t be surprised if Adams winds up being the AAC’s top performer this season.
But even that buoyancy comes with a caveat, and the caveat is that the AAC might be the strongest its ever been this season. Wichita State joins the fray for the first time and does so as a consensus preseason top 10 team. Mick Cronin has arguably his best collection of talent in more than a decade as the head coach of Cincinnati. SMU still has Shake Milton and a host of talented transfers. Even the bottom of the conference is shaping up to be less of a pushover than its been since the birth of the league in 2013. That’s not the greatest setup for a Connecticut team with a number of question marks and a collective shaken confidence.
One season isn’t going to make or break the national perception of Connecticut basketball, but it could result in a massive step in one extreme direction or another.
If UConn is one of the country’s most pleasant surprises in 2017-18, it could set the stage for a return to national prominence and the maintaining of a top-tier status the program has enjoyed since the middle portion of Calhoun’s tenure. Another NCAA tournament whiff, however, and the Huskies will not only continue their slide out of the nation’s collective basketball conscience, but they’ll start to lose sight of anything to grab onto.