Connecticut and Colorado played to their identities in the NCAA Tournament on Thursday. The Huskies habitually win in March, and the Buffaloes don’t.
That’s why Colorado’s nine-point halftime advantage carried risk, which was realized in UConn’s 74-67 comeback victory.
Ninth-seeded Connecticut will face top-ranked Kansas in a second-round game Saturday because it pressured, challenged and squeezed eighth-seeded Colorado into too many mistakes and bad shots. Defense is what the Huskies do best.
Well, that and win tournament games.
Conference or NCAA, it doesn’t matter. No program seems to revel in conference tournament action and March Madness like the Huskies.
Remember, the Huskies were the ninth seed in the Big East Tournament in 2011, won five games in five nights for the title and then won six more to capture the NCAA championship.
Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina and Kansas stand as college basketball’s elite, and they’ve earned that designation with their consistent excellence over the last several decades.
But since 1999, when Connecticut won its first national championship, no program has won more than the Huskies’ four.
In that time, Duke owns three titles, North Carolina and Florida two and no other program more than one. In NCAA Tournament history, no program has a better all-time Final Four winning percentage than UConn’s .889 (8-1).
All blue bloods aspire to play for national championships. Connecticut wins them.
The Huskies were never the favorite to win in any of their championship years, including the Richard Hamilton-led first one in 1999. That was the one of the four titles when UConn was a No. 1 seed.
Duke was the unstoppable force that season, until it met Connecticut in the final. Emeka Okafor in 2004, Kemba Walker in 2011 and Shabazz Napier in 2014 were the respective focal points of the Huskies’ other hard-nosed national-title teams.
These Huskies will bring the same approach, if not the talent, into Saturday’s showdown against KU. Coach Kevin Ollie played for Jim Calhoun in the early 1990s, joined the staff in 2010 after a 13-year pro career and is in his fourth year as head coach in Storrs. With Thursday’s victory, he’s the most perfect coach in NCAA Tournament history, with a 7-0 record.
UConn will make things difficult for the Jayhawks, who likely will experience the type of pressure West Virginia applies. The Huskies’ highlight plays against the Buffaloes were deflected passes that turned into breakaway slams.
But unlike the Mountaineers, the Huskies also have shot-blocking ability. Against the Buffaloes, they came up with eight blocks to go along with eight steals, which helps explains how UConn ranks third nationally in field-goal percentage defense (38.2). Sloppiness will make things difficult for Kansas.
After winning Thursday, the Connecticut players said respectful things about Kansas, and they correctly painted themselves as the underdog.
“They should be favored,” said guard Sterling Gibbs, who sealed the Colorado victory with six straight free throws. “They’re the No. 1 seed. They’re really good across the board.”
Huskies in the locker room ran down KU players’ names. Gibbs pays attention to the program because he started his college career at Texas. Rodney Purvis, who led UConn with 19 points, grew up in Raleigh, N.C., and found himself on the same playground courts as the younger Devonte’ Graham.
“Man, he was good,” Purvis said. “He’s still fun to watch.”
Somehow, the Huskies and Jayhawks have never met in an NCAA Tournament. They’ve played each other only twice, with Kansas winning both in the mid-1990s, once at Kemper Arena and the other in Hartford, Conn.
Those games occurred before UConn had won its first title. KU was a power program at the time. Connecticut soon captured its first championship and started building a championship resume of envy.