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UConn, Purdue showed blueprint for building NCAA championship rosters — again – The Athletic

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The master plan for men’s college basketball was in plain sight again Monday night, but for distracting confetti flakes floating into the area. Connecticut won another national championship, its second straight, which is an extremely hard thing to do. But the imprints and spoor leading directly to masses of happy humanity in April were right there, for any coach or administrator who cares to look. This is what wins now. It is intricate and tenuous and, honestly, not that hard to figure out.

It was right there, too, behind the dejected steps Purdue took off the floor at State Farm Stadium. There may be a lifetime’s worth of what-ifs in West Lafayette, Ind., about the game, but there should not be any regrets about the architecture. What the Boilermakers did to earn the chance to be sad was more or less what any program in this sport should do. It just didn’t work against one team. And what else is new when UConn is the one team?



UConn stymies Purdue in title game, goes back-to-back

“Pure dominance,” Huskies senior Hassan Diarra said amid the revelry of a 75-60 win and a sixth national championship for the program. “Offensively. Defensively. Our connection with each other. This team is amazing.”

It is, but it is also a high-definition remaster of an old movie we’ve seen before. National titles in men’s college basketball aren’t won through player development or the infusion of young talent or a canny command of the transfer portal. They’re won by doing all of it. In proper proportion, and probably in the above order. Before they even got started Monday, Connecticut and Purdue reconfirmed what Kansas, Baylor, Virginia and Villanova told us previously. What the Jayhawks or Gonzaga or Dayton might have added but for a pandemic wiping out the postseason four years ago.

Substance over schtick. The shiny new thing, tossed into a shoebox and shoved in the closet.

Why chase anything else but this blueprint? Why trick yourself into thinking you’re the smartest guy in the room, when you’re maybe the only guy in the room? This is the way, and has been for some time, and will be for the foreseeable future.

“I think all of us should just shut up about it,” Huskies coach Dan Hurley said a day before seizing back-to-back titles, “and stop trying to help the people that don’t know what they’re doing.”

Here’s where we acknowledge you have to be good, and not merely in line with precedent.

“I’ve yet to see somebody come up here and get interviewed all the time with bad players,” Boilermakers coach Matt Painter duly noted on championship eve. But there was also one five-star recruit, total, on the rosters of the two teams playing Monday. There were, meanwhile, a combined 27,063 minutes played in Division I between the 10 starters going in. There’s a right kind of good and a pointless kind of good.

Purdue rolled out a senior All-American who might be the greatest all-time example of patient player development, a third-year forward who sat out his freshman year, two sophomore guards who wear more than a few scars and a fifth-year transfer guard who was very selectively plucked from the portal.

“A lot of people that are picking out of the portal, they’re trying to get the most talented guys, if they’re getting multiple guys,” Painter said. “Someone has to get six or seven guys — there’s no way six or seven guys are going to be successful. It’s impossible, right?”

Around Zach Edey and Braden Smith, Purdue had the right roster mix — to beat all but one team. (Grace Hollars / USA Today)

UConn? A lot of year-to-year newness, but more than enough sameness.

It was led Monday by a former transfer guard who was finishing his second year with the program, Tristen Newton, for the second time in as many years the engine of a title game win. It also started a third-year forward who sat out his freshman season, a sophomore and a freshman who will be first-round picks and a fifth-year transfer guard who was very selectively plucked from the portal.

“Young players with talent that are insulated by returning players to your program that can uphold the culture,” Hurley said, releasing the not-so-secret codes he said he’d prefer not to release. “Then strategic portal additions that can put you over the top.”

The general concept is not new, which makes it all the more stunning when other programs don’t try to mimic it. UConn in 2023 featured developed veterans (Andre Jackson Jr., Adama Sanogo), a developmental transfer (Newton), an ascendant sophomore (Jordan Hawkins) and splashes of promising youth (Donovan Clingan, Alex Karaban).

Kansas in 2022? Developed veteran stalwarts (Ochai Agbaji, Christian Braun, David McCormack), a talented sophomore (Jalen Wilson) and a veteran transfer (Remy Martin) rounding out the mix.

Baylor in 2021? A developed star (Jared Butler), transfers in their third year with the program (MaCio Teague and Davion Mitchell), talented youth (Adam Flagler). Virginia’s championship team was all juniors and one breakout sophomore. Villanova had Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges as weathered bedrock, holding up the youth around them.

Of course, after you put it all together, the mind games remain. Role definition is the work of getting there with more mines than safe passage in the way.

Everyone has to want to do what you tell them to do, and not leave when they don’t like what they hear.

There’s apparently a trick to that, too.

“They’re brutally honest,” Karaban said.



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UConn’s starting power forward was a consensus top-50 recruit. He joined the Huskies as a mid-year enrollee in 2022. He didn’t play a minute. “They wanted me for my offensive talent,” Karaban said, “but they were honest with me, that on the defensive end, you gotta get better.” He took the fourth-most shots on a national championship team as a redshirt freshman. He’d taken the third-most shots for UConn going into Monday. He has gone nowhere and will go nowhere unless it’s to an NBA franchise.

It’s gratification by degree, not by decree. “We don’t kiss the kids’ a– during recruiting,” Hurley said. “We don’t kiss it while they’re on campus. We bring tremendous value to our players because we’re old school and we push them to get better.”

In the other locker room Sunday afternoon, two players sat in stalls, happy to be here while probably not thinking they’d be here like this. Ethan Morton started 29 games and played 880 minutes for Purdue last season. He started zero and logged more than 500 fewer minutes this year. Caleb Furst saw his minutes drop from 18.4 per game as a freshman to 9.2 as a junior.

“It pains me that they don’t play,” Painter said, before noting that he is paid to make decisions for the betterment of Purdue. Easy and fair to say. Not easy to digest when you are the person doing nothing for the betterment of Purdue. Particularly challenging when there is not a definable conversation about it as much as the expectation that a player can read the room as the year moves along.

And as far as anyone is willing to say, there has been no corrosion. “I’ve told people this a lot,” Morton said. “If you’re not going to buy into what they want you to do, you’re going to stick out in a bad way.”

Both of these programs and their coaches have it figured out, even if UConn had one important element of the plan — big guards who little guards can’t see over or get past, basically — that Purdue couldn’t bring to bear.

This is why the Huskies could start the hugs and celebration with 36 seconds left on the game clock; Painter called off the intentional fouls. He knew for sure what he probably suspected for a while: He’d turned his program into a team that could beat every other program, except the one on the other bench.

This is why Hurley had one directive for his son, Andrew, who had possession of the basketball in the waning moments, while the shot clock ran down and UConn was willingly taking the violation: Spike that ball. Andrew Hurley obliged his pops. An exclamation point, for those who care to notice, though how could anyone not?

The Boilermakers, meanwhile, have to calculate an existence after a 7-foot-4 colossus tilted the floor for two years in a row. They will not at all be the same without Zach Edey, who scored 37 points Monday. They couldn’t be. They should still be fairly thoroughly old, though, and that oldness will complement a top-15 recruiting class matriculating this summer. It’s a different version of the same plan. “When you have the most wins in school history, you’re the first team to win back-to-back (Big Ten) championships by multiple games since 1976, and you get an eyelash away from winning it all, that’s the standard,” Painter said.

Feel free to try to do it another way. Both of these programs, or any others who’ve had their eyes open on the last few championship Mondays, will be happy to be here again someday.

(Top photo of UConn’s Alex Karaban, Stephon Castle, Donovan Clingan and Tristen Newton: Jamie Squire / Getty Images)