In one of the more hyped-up first-round games in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, a battle of coaching bluebloods went Dan Hurley’s way, his UConn team putting a St. Patrick’s Day whooping on Rick Pitino and Iona.
Within days, Pitino was headed back up the coaching ladder, taking the job at St. John’s, in a move that sets up plenty more future Big East confrontations with Hurley. Before he left, however, Pitino had a very specific message for the UConn coach.
“Win it all,” Pitino reportedly told Hurley in the hallway of Albany’s MVP Arena. “Take it home. You’ve got the team to do it.”
Two weeks later, the Huskies are not only still standing, but they head into the weekend’s Final Four in Houston as a prohibitive favorite, the hottest team going and the highest remaining seed, the old-guard, old-school torchbearer among one of the most unexpected Final Fours in the history of the tournament.
Forget the notion of not having a No. 1 seed still in the field. For the first time, there are no 1s, 2s, or 3s, with No. 4 UConn topping a group that includes No. 5 Miami, No. 5 San Diego State, and the biggest party crasher of them all, No. 9 Florida Atlantic. The latter three schools are all making their first Final Four appearance.
March Madness indeed. The best kind ever.
The parity in men’s college basketball is at an all-time high, and the resulting madness only amplifies what has always made the tournament so special: The underdogs have a chance. Yet for all the fun of years past, like when No. 11 George Mason made it in 2006, No. 11 VCU in 2011, No. 11 Loyola (Chicago) in 2018, or all the way back to an OG upstart in No. 8 Villanova in 1985, this year’s upheaval speaks not only to the magic of a single night, but to the changing landscape of college sports.
The hand-wringers so concerned that college sports would be ruined by expanded transfer portals and increased NIL (name, image, and likeness) money should realize now that the model is better with fewer such restrictions. The system is far from perfect, but so many who opposed the recent player empowerment changes did so under the guise of protecting them, of insisting on the false narrative that the rich would only get richer, making it harder than ever for the smaller guys to get a bite out of the pie.
Meanwhile, back on the court, traditional men’s basketball powerhouses (and the biggest NIL spenders of them all) such as Kentucky, North Carolina, and Duke are on the sidelines, while upstarts such as FAU, in the field while UNC didn’t even get a bid, were out there winning game(s).
The same holds true on the women’s side, even if it looks slightly different. The Final Four teams all come in with high seeds, with overall No. 1 and defending champion South Carolina facing No. 1 Iowa, while No. 1 Virginia Tech faces No. 3 LSU.
What you don’t see on the women’s side is UConn, whose loss in the Sweet 16 snapped an incredible streak of 14 consecutive Final Four appearances. That meant no Elite Eight either, which UConn had made for 16 years straight. In fact, when the Elite Eight played out without the traditional powerhouses UConn, Stanford, or Tennessee, who’ve won a combined 22 titles, it was the first time that happened since 1985. The NCAA only took over the women’s championship tournament in 1982.
But much like UConn women’s coach Geno Auriemma said so graciously after his loss, this is not a time to lament the end of the streak, but to marvel that it happened at all, and to celebrate the work it did in inspiring other programs to try and catch up. Auriemma has often made it tough to root for him, given his penchant for complaining about refs, those sideline outbursts and thrown water bottles, his occasional inability to credit an opponents’ play in favor of faulting his own team’s shortcomings as a reason for loss, and, of course, the blowout wins.
But like the US women’s soccer team that has been on the same ill-informed end of ire over lopsided scores, this is the highest level of competition. No mercy rule needed. Play better or take the beating. With increased financial commitment, with more players available via transfers, even with the extra eligibility afforded after the COVID-19 pandemic, more teams are playing better.
And it’s great for the game.
When Hurley got to Storrs, Conn., five years ago to take over a proud but struggling program, he was charged with getting the Huskies back to their four-time national championship winning level. Within three years, he was in the NCAA field, but two early flameouts only intensified the pressure on this year’s team. To be heading to Houston this weekend says everything about standing up to the challenge.
It wasn’t easy.
“The history and tradition, it helps you in recruiting. We sold it to these guys. We’ve done it here before; we can do it again,” Hurley said. “But I think it becomes a little bit of a mental hurdle, especially like early rounds of the NCAA Tournament where you feel like maybe the burden of the history and tradition and first-round games, maybe even second-round games.
“But it also feels like, when you coach at Rhode Island and Wagner [Hurley’s previous coaching stops], you’re not always getting everyone’s best shot every single night. And when you play or coach at UConn you get the other team’s best shot every single night. It’s their Super Bowl. So the climb to get to this point has been real and it’s been more challenging than I thought.”
True, and also great for the sport at large.
Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.