This article is part of our March Madness series.
With apologies to fans of Florida Atlantic, Miami and San Diego State, three-quarters of the 2023 men’s Final Four didn’t look like they belonged there. One year after we got four of the game’s preeminent programs,1 this year’s event welcomed three programs that entered March Madness with a higher combined seed total (19) than all-time tournament wins (17) — and zero Final Fours between them. This anonymous trio was symbolic of a tournament in which zero No. 1 seeds advanced to the Elite Eight, a No. 15 seed advanced to the Sweet 16 and just one of the sport’s blue bloods2 advanced to the second weekend.
But the remaining quarter of the Final Four was the Connecticut Huskies — no stranger to the sport’s greatest heights — and UConn had no interest in ceding basketball immortality to the game’s lesser beings. On Monday night, the Huskies finished a dream season with a near-wire-to-wire 76-59 victory over San Diego State. Led by Most Outstanding Player Adama Sanogo, who averaged 19 points and 10 rebounds in Houston, UConn was never truly threatened by feisty San Diego State, as the Aztecs couldn’t bring the second-half margin below 5 points against the taller and more offensively potent Huskies.
It was UConn’s fifth title in the past 25 seasons — the most national championships in that stretch of any program, and the third time a program has won as many titles in a 25-year stretch — and its 45th NCAA Tournament win in that span, solidifying the Huskies’ No. 1 spot in tourney winning percentage dating back to its first title in 1999. UConn’s long-standing exclusion from the sport’s royalty is getting harder to justify, though it may owe to the program’s relative irrelevance outside of those five runs: No team among the top 10 in qualified winning percentage has piled up a higher share of its tournament wins during title runs.
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In a tournament (and season) defined by the seeming absence of good teams — and good teams proving fraudulent when it counted most — you might be tempted to chalk up UConn’s title run to facing a historically weak field. This was just the third season in Ken Pomeroy’s database (since 2002) in which the best team ended the season with an adjusted efficiency margin below plus-30 points per 100 possessions, and the first since 2006. Plus, the highest seed UConn faced on its run was No. 3 Gonzaga, making the Huskies just the third champion since 19853 to not face a 1 or a 2 seed. All of this would seem to suggest the Huskies are one of the least impressive winners of the past 20-plus years.
But as the saying goes, you can only beat the teams in front of you — and the Huskies did so in resounding fashion. UConn trounced that Gonzaga team in the Elite Eight by 28 points, coming off of victories by 23, 15 and 24 points in the first three rounds. Then the Huskies made easy work of Miami in Saturday’s second semifinal matchup, winning by 13 in a game that was more lopsided than the final margin made it appear.win probability chart reveals that Connecticut spent nearly the entire second half at or above 90 percent to beat the Hurricanes.">4 And before a second-half Aztec run injected some ephemeral drama on Monday night, the only uncertainty was whether UConn would set a new record for tournament point differential this millennium. In the end, the Huskies had to settle for the third-best average tournament margin of victory since 2000 — and they became just the fifth team since 20085 to finish the season as No. 1 in KenPom’s adjusted efficiency rankings and have the best in-tournament adjusted efficiency by Bart Torvik’s rankings:
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But even though the Huskies’ run might now appear predetermined, UConn had to defy expectations and sheer odds in the way only UConn can. The 2023 Huskies are the first title winners who were unranked in the preseason since, perhaps fittingly, the 2011 Kemba Walker-led UConn team that put on a show for the ages. And just like in 2011, when Walker burst onto the scene in an early-season tournament, it was immediately apparent in November that voters had underestimated UConn; the Huskies dismantled future No. 1 overall seed Alabama as part of an unbeaten nonconference slate, showcasing a mature balance between an offense that feasted on second-chance opportunities and a defense that offered nothing easy inside or outside the 3-point arc. A disastrous eight-game stretch from New Year’s Eve to late January saw UConn go 2-6, but that midseason swoon might have obscured a truly dominant profile: The Huskies never fell below No. 6 in KenPom’s rankings after Dec. 1, even throughout that skid, and rebounded to enter the Big Dance as winners of nine of their previous 11.
In some ways, this season was a microcosm of the UConn men’s basketball experience over the past quarter-century. Despite winning more titles than any program in that period, UConn had not earned a seat at the blue blood table — a denial often justified by yearslong stretches of mediocrity or missing the tournament entirely. This season, it looked like the Huskies were headed for more of the same after that shaky eight-game stretch at midseason, perhaps punctuated by a blown 17-point lead to unranked Seton Hall. Despite an efficiency profile that screamed “No. 1 seed”, the disrespected Huskies only got a No. 4 from the selection committee, and only 3 percent of brackets in ESPN’s Tournament Challenge foretold UConn cutting down the nets.
But if history has been any tell, UConn is at its most magical when the sport’s collective gaze has fallen on someone else. While college basketball’s giants were sent home early — or not invited to the party altogether — Connecticut was content to plow through the competition until fans and media had no choice but to notice them. These Huskies sure had that dog in them, but they were no underdog — and might have finally ascended to college basketball royalty.