Sports Journalism Blog

By Christopher Wright

Sports Capital Journalism Program

HOUSTON — Emeka Okafor, the defensive foundation of the 2004 champion Connecticut Huskies, was the 2023 team’s biggest cheerleader in the dressing room at NRG Stadium Monday night. After the national champion Huskies returned from the net-cutting ceremony following their emphatic victory over San Diego State, Okafor bounced from player to player, making sure to catch each one. “I’m just so happy for you guys, and proud of you guys,” Okafor told Andrew Hurley, son of coach Dan Hurley. Okafor continued, after a handshake-to-hug combo, “I’m genuinely so happy for you. All of us are. It was awesome, for real.”

All of us most definitely includes the fraternity of the Huskies’ men’s program and their storied members. Monday night felt like a family reunion, with Okafor, Rudy Gay, Ray Allen, Kemba Walker, and 11-time champion women’s coach Geno Auriemma coming out to watch their Huskies dominate.

Before Okafor reached the dressing room, he stood below the darkened dome’s ceiling, towering above everyone nearby with blue-and-white confetti still on his head. “It’s awesome man, it’s one big family, UConn forever,” he said. “Just part of watching the legacy grow.”

Gay a forward for the Utah Jazz, said, “Well for one, it’s good just to be able to go back to my locker room and brag a little bit. It’s been a minute.”

The Huskies had not won a national championship since 2014. It may have been a minute, but while Connecticut has won five championships since 1999, no other team has had as many as four. North Carolina and Duke are the runners up with three, and Kansas, Villanova and Florida all have two since 1999.

The Huskies also join elite company in tournament history: UCLA (11), Kentucky (8), North Carolina (6), Duke (5), and Indiana (5), and now Connecticut are the only teams to win at least five national championships.

Gay continued: “And two, it’s so big for those guys specifically to get this ‘W’ man, they’ve been on some ups and downs.”

This year’s Connecticut team, similar to previous title runs for the program, did not appear to be the team of destiny. The preseason Associated Press poll had the Huskies outside of the top 25, and KenPom tracked similarly, ranking them 27th in the nation.

They were dominant to start out, winning their first 14 games, but faltered early in 2023, losing six out of eight games from December 31 through January 25. A big part of January’s woes were due to Andre Jackson Jr. faltering as a shooter, making 18 of 54 attempts, or 33%, in that stretch. Jackson’s slump was something that Hurley talked about often throughout the Final Four press conferences, and how he, as the coach, had to learn the best ways to use his star player.

“A lot of times coaches don’t necessarily have the control over that,” Auriemma said as he stood on the court after the Huskies had cut down the nets. “At some point, Andre has to say ‘I’m not playing well, I’m not playing my role. There’s a role for me on this team and it’s really important. We can’t win a national championship without me, and it may not be the role I want, but it’s the role I have to play.’ You gotta play to your strengths. They figured it out. Andre played his role, and he was a catalyst. He was a difference maker.

“They took the long road,” he went on. “It wasn’t easy.”

Auriemma paused for a moment, shaking his head with a stern look. “Those last two years, it wasn’t easy,” he said.

Gay, when asked about Jackson’s struggles, said, “They just figured it out. It’s a long season. You’re going to have some ups and downs, some lows. [But] when you got a coach like Coach Hurley who’s going to stay up all day and night trying to figure out how to play his players until they’re the best they can absolutely be, so you have to give your hat out to him, because at the end of the day, it’s the same team he started the season with, ya know?”

Okafor described Hurley’s influence as a coach. “You just never know what you have as long as you get a great guy that comes in,” he said. “A great family man that wants to build a family here…At the end of the day, you have to put your eyes on the program. How did the kids like the program, how did they like their coach, what was their experience? Sometimes that doesn’t always come down the line well. He’s done a hell of a job, and the kids love playing for him, they’ve told me. And that’s what matters the most.”

As the UConn staff began to close the dressing room, Allen, who won two National Basketball Association championships with the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat but never advanced beyond the Elite 8 in his UConn career from 1993 through 1996, said what the players should do next. “Enjoy what you’re going through,” he said. “Enjoy this experience because very soon someone will be asking what you’re doing next.”

For generations of Huskies, led by coaches Jim Calhoun, Kevin Ollie and now Hurley, that is the enduring expectation.

“The mentality and spirit is still the same,” Okafor said. “UConn, we’re that foundation, we’re that rock. We ain’t gone nowhere. We’re back.

“Now we just gotta hold onto them,” he added, referring to the players in the era of the Transfer Portal and Name-Image-Likeness payments.

“But either way, there’s more to come.”