Four titles, many memories: Ranking the 10 all-time best UConn men's basketball teams

Published on Sunday, 22 March 2020 20:12
Written by Neill Ostrout

Journal Inquirer

The UConn men’s basketball team has won four national championships in its history, quite a haul for a program that was not even on the national radar until the late 1980s.

But their title teams are not the only ones in Husky history that had talent, and even some of the non-champions put together some impressive seasons.

To that end, we have put together a list of the top 10 teams in UConn history, with a few details about their accomplishments:

No. 10

1994: The Florida Free Throws - With the program’s first-ever consensus All-American and national superstar, Donyell Marshall, leading the way, the sky was the limit for this bunch.

The Huskies scored 107 against Towson, 117 against Central Connecticut, 96 against Texas, 112 against Texas-Arlington, 130 against Tennessee Tech, 113 against Winthrop.

Marshall had a pair of 40-point games at Madison Square Garden that season and averaged 25.1 points per game, third-best for a season in school history, but missed a pair of free throws in the closing seconds of regulation in the Huskies’ regional semifinal against Florida that would have won the game. The Gators would then win 69-60 in overtime.

No. 9

1990: The Dream Season - Not many expected the tiny cow college in eastern Connecticut to produce a top-flight team in the 1989-90 season, nor in any season for that matter.

But the perfect mesh of a veteran point guard in Tate George, a burgeoning star guard in Chris Smith, perhaps the best athlete in UConn history in freshman forward Scott Burrell, and an import from Israel named Nadav Henefeld who seemed to do a little bit of everything, created the biggest surprise in the nation.

The Huskies would go 31-6, making it to the regional final on one of the biggest plays in NCAA Tournament history, Burrell’s full-court pass to George with 1.0 second left against Clemson for the game-winning jumper. Of course, two days later Christian Laettner would break the Huskies’ hearts with a buzzer-beater of his own and keep UConn an eyelash short of the Final Four.

No. 8

1998: The One Before the Win - Longtime UConn coach Jim Calhoun would lament the location of his most painful losses almost as much as he would the opponent. Having to play an NCAA Tournament game against UCLA in California (even if it was Oakland, some 375 miles away from the Bruins’ campus in L.A.)? Outrageous. Having to play an NCAA Tournament game against Florida in Florida (even if it was in Miami, some 340 miles from the Gators’ campus)? Totally unfair.

But the one regional site where Calhoun had good argument that the venue may have influenced the outcome significantly was the Huskies’ 1998 NCAA Regional Final matchup with North Carolina in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Two days after Richard Hamilton’s dramatic game-winner beat Washington, the Huskies fell to the Tar Heels, 75-64, in front of a highly partisan crowd of powder blue-wearing fans.

If the location were different, UConn, which finished the season 32-5, might have reached the Final Four and won its first championship a year early

No. 7

1995: The Allen Era - In the NCAA Tournament, we’re told annually, it’s about the matchups as much as it is the seeds. Never was that more apparent for UConn than in the 1995 draw. UConn, in that March, could probably have beaten any team in the nation, except perhaps one. And the Huskies unfortunately had to meet UCLA in the regional final, and lost a shootout, 102-96.

This loss, combined with one the following year to Mississippi State in the regional semifinals, was painful for perhaps the greatest basketball player in school history, Ray Allen.

Allen would go on to become an NBA superstar and many of his other teammates on those UConn teams - Kevin Ollie, Donny Marshall, Travis Knight included - would also play in the NBA, but the Allen era ended at UConn without what many believed it was destined to earn, a national title.

No. 6

2014: The Hungry Huskies - They are most maligned of national champions, not just the most maligned of UConn national champions. And considering we’ve ranked two non-championship teams ahead of them on the list, perhaps we’re contributing to that unfair take.

In truth, Shabazz Napier was as clutch as anyone in UConn history, DeAndre Daniels made the biggest improvement from sophomore-to-junior as anyone in UConn history, Niels Giffey was perhaps the best three-and-D player in UConn history, Ryan Boatright was the best 5-foot-10ĂŚ player in UConn history, Amida Brimah was the best freshman center in UConn history, and Phil Nolan hedged on the pick-and-roll better than anyone else in UConn history.

After a Senior Night victory, UConn coach Kevin Ollie said he’d see all the fans again after their trip to Dallas (site of the Final Four) and many thought he was crazy. Then the Huskies were absolutely throttled by Louisville (81-48!!) in their regular season finale, and many more thought the coach was nuts.

UConn lost eight games that season, but only three to teams not named Louisville or SMU. It became the first No. 7 seed ever to reach the title game, and then the first to ever win the championship.

No. 5

2009: Dead end in Detroit - There are some fans and followers of the Huskies - and even longtime UConn assistant coach Tom Moore is in this club - who claim that had guard Jerome Dyson not suffered an injury in mid-season that this group would have won the national title, and not just reached the Final Four.

With A.J. Price controlling the game, Jeff Adrien controlling the boards and Hasheem Thabeet blocking every fifth shot opponents took, the Huskies finished 31-5, losing to Michigan State (in Detroit, not far from the Spartans’ East Lansing, Michigan campus) in the national semifinals.

They were experts at shaking off painful losses, too, though there were very of those: Pitt’s DeJuan Blair suplexing Thabeet in their February showdown, and the six-overtime affair against Syracuse at the Garden in the Big East tournament.

No. 4

2006: The George Mason Mess - With apologies to 1995 and 2009, this team is the “best that never was” in UConn history. A boatload of talent beginning with a future NBA superstar (Rudy Gay), the best passer the program had ever seen (Marcus Williams), two wings who loved to fight over who would take the final shot in the close game (Rashad Anderson, Denham Brown), two big men who had developed into one of the best combinations in the country (Hilton Armstrong, Josh Boone). Their role players (Craig Austrie, Jeff Adrien, Ed Nelson) would have been stars that year at many other programs.

The group’s only problem was that it felt it could often toy with opponents only to put its foot on the pedal late in games or hit some dramatic shot to secure victory: see wins over Gonzaga, Notre Dame, Louisville, Kentucky, Washington, etc.

Even up until the final second of overtime against George Mason in the regional final, when a last-second shot missed its mark, it’s fairly clear none of the Huskies ever thought they were going to lose. But UConn lost to Mason, a (No. 11 seed!) and finished 30-4, one game shy of the Final Four.

No. 3

1999: Shocking the World - After knocking on the door a number of times, Jim Calhoun’s Huskies finally made it to the Final Four in 1999. And they weren’t interested in just getting their, they wanted to do what few gave them a shot to: win it all.

Despite the fact that the Huskies had two bona fide superstars in Richard Hamilton and Khalid El-Amin, a host of terrific other players like Kevin Freeman and Ricky Moore, and had only lost two games all season (only one when at full strength), many discounted the idea that anyone other than Duke would win it all.

But the Huskies “shocked the world” as El-Amin screamed after the 77-74 Husky win in St. Petersburg, Florida.

No. 2

2011: Kemba and the Miracles - When the 2010-11 regular season ended for UConn, the Huskies’ record stood at 21-9. They were a solid NCAA Tournament team, but gone were many of the good feelings from a 10-0 start that included huge non-conference wins over Kentucky, Michigan State and Wichita State.

Then the Huskies decided to do something - or more aptly just did - something that no one had ever done in college basketball history. They won five games in five days at the Big East Tournament, with Kemba Walker’s amazing heroic ability on full display. They then moved on to win six more in a row in the NCAA Tournament, with Walker practically willing them to wins over San Diego State (with star Kawhi Leonard) and Arizona (only after Jamelle Horne’s potential game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer just missed its mark) in the regionals, then over Kentucky and Butler in the Final Four.

Eleven wins after March 7 was a first in the sport, and any team attempting such a feat these days would be wise to have a player like Walker on board.

No. 1

2004: Emeka, Ben and lots of talented men - With two of the top players in program history, not to mention the No. 2 and No. 3 picks in the NBA Draft that would follow, the Huskies were the nation’s preseason No. 1 team and did not disappoint. Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon, with help from point guard Taliek Brown and others, would lead the Huskies to their second national crown.

The Huskies were in a little trouble in the national semifinals against Duke when Okafor picked up two early fouls and was sent to bench for the remainder of the first half per Calhoun’s longstanding practice. But Okafor, despite battling a bad back for much of February and March, dominated the second half and led the Huskies back from an eight-point deficit with four minutes to play. In the title game they faced a Georgia Tech team that had handed them one of their six losses during the season in November. This time the Huskies were in complete control, with Okafor getting 24 points and 15 rebounds in an 82-73 win.

Posted in New Britain Herald, UConn on Sunday, 22 March 2020 20:12. Updated: Sunday, 22 March 2020 20:14.