This article is part of our March Madness series.
The 2023 men’s NCAA Tournament has transformed into a bloodletting exercise for the sport’s traditional powers. Of the 15 teams that claim at least two national championships, only eight1 qualified for the tournament at all, and only one advanced past the Sweet 16. No. 1 seed Kansas was upset by an Arkansas team that never led in its subsequent game. Second-seeded UCLA blew a 13-point halftime lead and a 93 percent second-half win probability in its loss to No. 3 Gonzaga. No. 5 Duke was installed as a 3.5-point favorite over No. 4 Tennessee, but got bounced by the Vols in the second round. Kentucky and Michigan State both lost to Kansas State in short succession. In a sport largely defined by the blue bloods that have dominated for generations, 2023 will be remembered as a strange detour to campuses unknown.2
But there has, of course, been one exception to this rule: The UConn Huskies.
Entering the tournament, data-based predictions (including our model) were high on Connecticut, an appraisal that has repeatedly been validated to this point. With a power rating (89.2, ninth-best in the tourney field) befitting a much higher seed than the No. 4 it was given by the selection committee, our pre-tournament forecast estimated that Dan Hurley and the Huskies had a 15 percent probability of advancing to their first Final Four in nine years and a 3 percent chance to win their fifth national title. But those numbers look quite conservative now, as the Huskies are currently favorites (with a tournament-best 43 percent championship probability) to earn what could be the second championship ever won by a No. 4 seed.3
UConn has dominated its competition to this point, becoming the 10th Final Four team in men’s tournament history to win each game by at least 15 points; three of its four wins have been decided by more than 20 points. The Huskies lit up Las Vegas over a two-game stretch that included a 23-point victory over No. 8 Arkansas and a 28-point shellacking of No. 3 Gonzaga, in what was the most lopsided Elite Eight beatdown in 31 years. The latter performance was a total defensive clinic by the Huskies, who held the most efficient offense in college basketball to a puny 54 points and its worst single-game offensive rating in at least 13 years.
All told, UConn’s plus-90 point differential through four games is tied for the fourth-best output of any Final Four team since 2000.4 Mostly everything seems to be in sync for Hurley and his team — especially on the offensive end, where the Huskies have scored at least 80 points in three of the team’s four tournament games and are shooting 41.8 percent from beyond the arc. UConn has been dangerous all season, but seems to have saved its best firepower for the biggest stage: Two of the Huskies’ six best single-game true-shooting percentages have been produced in the past two weeks.
Now the analytics are even higher on the Huskies than they already were. UConn currently tops the KenPom adjusted efficiency leaderboard — easily the best among any remaining Final Four team,5 and far higher than the No. 15 it ranked when Shabazz Napier and company propelled the Huskies to the 2014 national title. By Sports-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System, this is shaping up to be the fifth-best team in school history, a sign of the work Hurley and his coaching staff have done to return the program to the highest echelon of the sport (and a true testament to the powerhouse teams built by legendary coach Jim Calhoun and stars like Ray Allen, Ben Gordon, Richard Hamilton and Emeka Okafor during the 1990s and into the 2000s and 2010s).6
With the sport’s attention shifting to Houston and the Final Four — a stage UConn hasn’t appeared on in nine years — Hurley’s team is the only one carrying the banner for the blue bloods as it pursues a fifth national title since 1999.7 While the Huskies have yet to be truly tested this tournament,8 that might just be proof of how far ahead they are of the competition.
“Sometimes, when people are seeing us for the first time, it’s overwhelming,” Hurley said after the team’s most recent win.
In an NCAA Tournament that will be remembered as the burial site for the sport’s titans, overwhelming might be a bad thing. But for now, it’s difficult to argue against UConn as the class of the remaining field.
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