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There’s not a lot for Dan Hurley to complain about right now. His UConn Huskies are two games away from their second straight national championship, something no team has done since Florida in 2006-07. His players, he says, “play every possession like it’s the end of the world.”

They’ve been ending a lot of seasons doing it: The Huskies’ smallest margin of victory across four NCAA Tournament games is 17 against Northwestern in the second round, a game they led by as much as 30. They, then shellacked San Diego State by 30 in a title-game rematch from last year and used a 30-0 run to beat Illinois by 25. When Hurley called his offense and defense “elite” after the win over Illinois, he wasn’t bragging. He was telling the truth. UConn leads the nation in offensive efficiency and is fourth in defensive efficiency. Only two teams — 2018-19 Virginia and 2015-16 Villanova — finished in the top five in both, and those teams each won national championships.

Things are good, but they aren’t perfect. Maintaining that excellence, Hurley said ahead of the Elite Eight, is harder than ever.

“Obviously, you’re managing your roster with the portal, with NIL,” Hurley said. “I mean, for us, you better be a more skilled coach these days because you’re dealing with a lot more stuff.

“it’s tough. It’s not easy,” he continued. “It’s going to get tougher. Unless somebody — get like a commissioner that gets this thing a little bit more organized and under control. We could really use a commissioner.”

For now, though, Hurley can only focus on the task at hand: finishing this season with another national championship trophy. He opposes the transfer portal’s calendar and said he’s not involved in recruiting the portal outside of “casual conversations.” That responsibility falls to assistant coach Tom Moore, who Hurley says is “in a pseudo-GM role, trying to project out what the roster’s going to look like.”

That’s no easy task, and adjustments are being made constantly. Last year, the Huskies pursued Towson transfer Nicolas Timberlake during their title run. Timberlake came close to committing, per CT Insider, before choosing Kansas. The Huskies quickly pivoted and landed Cam Spencer from Rutgers. 

Spencer has turned into the Huskies’ second-leading scorer, top 3-point marksman (44%) and an invaluable secondary ball-handler. Timberlake, under different circumstances of course, averaged 5.2 points while shooting 30% from 3 for a Jayhawks team that got bounced in the second round. There’s no way to know how Timberlake or UConn as a team would have fared if Plan A had come through, but that’s the challenge of the portal. Trying to gauge a players’ success elsewhere is fool’s errand.

Hurley says he can lean on “high-level culture” regardless, and it has clearly worked for the past two seasons. Can he make it work for a third? There will be big changes regardless of how this season finishes out, but here’s an early offseason primer for the Huskies.

Departures — NBA and otherwise — could loom large

Last year’s championship team lost Final Four Most Outstanding Player Adama Sanogo (undrafted), Jordan Hawkins (14th overall to the Pelicans) and Andre Jackson Jr. (36th overall to the Bucks via the Magic) to the NBA Draft. It also lost Joey Calcaterra to graduation — a role the coaches initially looked to fill with Timberlake but ended up filling with Spencer — and Nahiem Alleyne to St. John’s via transfer.

Yet, here the Huskies are again. Fifth-year guard Tristen Newton ascended from underrated title-game star to First Team All-America selection. Donovan Clingan is a premier interior force, now in a full-time role after backing up Sanogo last year. Spencer has helped replace not only Calcaterra but Hawkins, too — a terrific transfer portal find. Stephon Castle was the No. 9 player in 247Sports’ 2023 recruiting rankings and has very much lived up to the billing as a physical defender, aggressive slasher and scorer, and a terrific all-around player similar to what Jackson provided.

There will certainly be more departures this year. Castle and Clingan are No. 10 and No. 11, respectively, in CBS Sports’ 2024 NBA Draft Prospect Rankings. Alex Karaban, a 6-foot-8, 220-pound sharp-shooting wing, is No. 37

Newton and Spencer will exhaust their eligibility by season’s end, and Hassan Diarra hasn’t decided what he’ll do with an optional fifth year of eligibility. Regardless, the Huskies will need to replace both of their starting guards (and potentially their top backcourt backup) and almost certainly their starting small forward and starting center, too.

In-house options

Like this season, the Huskies hope to do significant work restocking with in-house and incoming players. It would go a long way if Karaban and/or Diarra return for their third year in the program.

Then there’s Samson Johnson, who hardly played in his first two years but has shown encouraging signs this year. Primarily Clingan’s backup, Johnson did get a seven-game stretch as a starter when Clingan was out with a foot injury in late December into January. In the first of those seven starts, Johnson delivered 16 points and four rebounds in a narrow win over St. John’s. The 6-foot-10 Togo native is shooting 72% from the field, best in Division I (min. 100 shots), with almost all of those shots coming right at the rim. His 73 dunks lead the team by a wide margin. Johnson’s development as a post scorer in addition to his abilities as a cutter and lob threat will be a key offseason storyline.

Guard Solomon Ball and wing Jaylin Stewart — both freshmen — have been on the fringes of the rotation. Stewart gets more consistent (but still limited) minutes recently. Ball hasn’t played double-digit minutes in a game since mid-February. Still, they are crucial parts. As mentioned earlier, the backcourt could look completely new next season, and Ball could have the first shot at assuming a big role.

The No. 44 overall recruit in last year’s class, Ball “gets downhill, plays through contact, is a menace in transition, a good cutter, perimeter rebounder, and has untapped upside as a creator off the dribble and potentially versatile defender,” 247Sports director of scouting Adam Finkelstein wrote in 2022. Ball was in the rotation — and even a starter — early in the season, but his minutes have evaporated as the season has progressed.

Stewart, on the other hand, wasn’t in the rotation much early but has carved out a small role. He combined for 17 points in the Big East Tournament semifinal and final. The No. 56 prospect in last year’s class, Stewart is shooting nearly 66% inside the arc this season. At 6-foot-7 and 210 pounds, he has the build, upside and recruiting pedigree to take on a larger role next season.

Four-star recruits Jayden Ross and Youssouf Singare were also part of the 2023 class. Their potential roles are to be determined.

High school recruiting

Hurley pulled in the fifth-best recruiting class in 2023. This year’s isn’t quite as decorated (35th, per 247Sports), in part because it includes just two players: combo guard Ahmad Nowell (No. 31 overall) and wing Isaiah Abraham (No. 82 overall).

Finkelstein described Nowell as a “power guard with a bulldog mentality” — someone with a college-ready build. He averaged 13.7 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.8 assists in last year’s Nike EYBL circuit while shooting over 50% from the floor and 41% from 3. Abraham, meanwhile, helped lead Paul VI to a championship in the über-competitive WCAC.

Even though it’s late in the cycle, UConn might not be done with its class: Liam McNeeley, the No. 16 overall player in 2024 and recent Indiana decommit, listed the Huskies as one of the programs recruiting him.

Transfer portal recruiting

With only two scholarship players incoming and at least four leaving (or likely leaving), UConn will potentially make a push in the portal. A guard seems like the top priority; it’s hard to imagine Hurley going into a season with just Ball and Nowell, and even if Diarra returns, there’s not a ton of depth there. FAU’s Johnell Davis is the top-ranked player in CBS Sprots’ top 50 transfers, and his combination of experience, shooting and scoring will undoubtedly make him a hot commodity.

The Huskies could also look to add another wing shooter — especially if Karaban leaves — or maybe a post player, considering Johnson is likely to be the only experienced big on next year’s roster as currently constructed. The transfer portal has been open since mid-March, so by playing until the final weekend of the NCAA Tournament, the Huskies are actually in a difficult spot if they plan to attack the portal. So while Hurley and Co. will be focusing on a title, the work won’t be done no matter how things play out in Phoenix.



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