The UConn men’s basketball program has just won its fourth national championship in 15 years as of Monday night in Dallas. The Huskie program is considered one of the “bluebloods” of the sport—perhaps not on a par with ancient powers like Kentucky, the team it just defeated, or UCLA. But UConn hoops is clearly a pre-eminent power, a fact marked not just by its raw volume of championships, but the fact the Huskies have now won with two different coaches. Kevin Ollie joined Jim Calhoun in the pantheon of national championship coaches.
How did this all start? There was a time when UConn couldn’t even swim to the surface without being devoured by the sharks of the Big East. When ESPN’s 30-for-30 documentary “Requiem for the Big East ran on March 16, the focus was on the schools that helped build the conference—Syracuse, Georgetown, St. John’s and Villanova. It wasn’t until later that UConn arrived on the scene.
It was the 1990 UConn basketball team that began to change the equation in their conference and ultimately the nation. The program made its emergence that spring behind a backcourt of Chris Smith and Tate George, and an Israeli import named Nadav Henefeld. The Huskies won the Big East title for the first time and were a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
UConn won the first two games and advanced the Meadowlands for the East Regionals. Their Sweet 16 win over Clemson is one that still makes the highlight reels in March. The Huskies trailed 70-69 and had to go the length of the court in one second. Scott Burrell inbounded the ball and fired a perfect 94-foot strike to George on the far right baseline. George caught the pass and in one motion turned around a shot. It hit the bottom of the net.
Two days later UConn played Duke for a trip to Denver and the Final Four. This one went to overtime and with a 78-77 lead now the Huskies looked like the team that was ready to win. Christian Laettner took the ball out of bounds for Duke on the left sideline near the Blue Devils basket. A simple give-and-go got Laettner a shot at the edge of the foul line. He pumped once and hit the basket at the buzzer. The Huskies had fallen a point short of the Final Four.
The dreams of 1990 UConn basketball might have been over, but they had arrived as a national basketball power. The program made it to the Sweet 16 a year later (again losing to Duke) and to regional finals in 1995 and 1998. Finally, they got over the hump and got the best of Duke, first in a national title matchup in 1999 and at the 2004 Final Four, also won by Calhoun’s Huskies.
Seven years later, Kemba Walker led the way to title #3. Now Shabazz Napier joins the list of Connecticut basketball heroes and the 2014 NCAA championship trophy goes to Storrs. As we celebrate the champions, let’s not forget Burrell, George, Henefeld and all the others on the 1990 UConn basketball team that got the ball rolling.