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At Final Four, UConn in familiar territory as it faces Miami

HOUSTON — All this buzz about how a wildly unpredictable March Madness led to a Final Four nobody could've possibly seen coming overlooked one small detail.

UConn.

When the Huskies tip off against Miami in Saturday's second semifinal, they will be two wins away from their fifth national title since 1999. No other school has won more over that span.

When the name “UConn” came up with a “4” seed next to its name three weekends ago on Selection Sunday, nobody raised too much of a stink. Four wins later — after no opponent came within 15 points of the Huskies — it's becoming apparent this is a team that might have been overlooked. Or underestimated.

“A lot of things happened,” coach Dan Hurley said in explaining how UConn's profile went from world beater to middle of the pack in midseason.

Most of that had to do with a string of six losses in eight games starting on New Year's Eve. It was a dry spell that coincided, according to the coach, with a stretch where “we didn't guard anybody for two weeks." It also included two games against a then-top 25 Xavier team before it lost its star, Zach Freemantle, and a feud Hurley launched against Big East referees that he said distracted him from coaching his team.

“We left that behind," Hurley said. "In November, December, February, March, we’ve been as good as anybody.”

UConn (29-8) ended the regular season listed eighth in the NCAA NET Rankings, a key guide for the selection committee that rates teams based on the strength of their schedules and other factors. That would've put UConn at a 2 seed. Meanwhile, Miami (29-7) was 35th in those rankings, which would've corresponded with a 7 seed, not the 5 the Hurricanes received.

The combined seedings of the four Final Four teams is 23 — the second highest since seeding began in 1979.

“How your season starts is not really reflective of how you might be in February and March,” Miami coach Jim Larrañaga said. "And it’s an impossible task for the committee to seed 1 through 68 and for everything to fall into place."

But things have slotted in nicely for the 'Canes.

Their run to the Final Four has been sparked by one player, Isaiah Wong, whose agent put out word that Wong was considering the transfer portal if he couldn't get a better NIL deal, and a few others, Nijel Pack and Norchad Omier, who came from elsewhere to help Larrañaga fill in a few pieces from a team that made the Elite Eight last year. Many viewed an NIL deal worth a reported $800,000 as an obvious reason Pack left Kansas State and chose the Hurricanes.

Larrañaga thinks it was more than that.

“I hope, and I really do assume, and I'm pretty sure I know, that Nijel saw the opportunity he had with Charlie graduating,” Larrañaga said of the departure of 12-points-per-game guard Charlie Moore.

All that sort of shuffling across the country has been cited as a major reason the tournament has felt so jumbled this season, and left us with a Final Four nobody saw coming.

Well, maybe not no one.

In a sign the Huskies aren't fooling anyone anymore, UConn is a prohibitive 10-13 favorite to win it all, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.

Some might argue UConn has been as good as anyone over the past quarter century. With players such as Rip Hamilton, Kemba Walker and Emeka Okafor leading the way, the Huskies won titles in 1999, 2004, 2011 and 2014.

But shortly after 2014, the program disintegrated in the wake of recruiting violations and the ugly departure of of coach Kevin Ollie. Hurley got the job in 2018 and saw UConn was ranked 170th on the KenPom analytics rankings.

“And you start looking at who was 165 and who was 172, and UConn shouldn’t be in this neighborhood,” Hurley said.

The Final Four feels like more familiar territory for this program.

ILLNESS

UConn's second-leading scorer, Jordan Hawkins, came down with a non-COVID illness and missed Friday's practice. Hurley said he was optimistic that the sophomore, who averages 16 points a game, had been isolated from the team in quick enough fashion to not get anyone else sick.

“Hopefully it just doesn’t continue to spread, and hopefully Jordan’s good to go, or at least give us something,” Hurley said.

DANCING

Some people would call it a win-lose. Larrañaga is getting buzz for his post-victory locker-room dancing celebrations that looks like a cross between the gopher in “Caddyshack” and Elaine from “Seinfeld.”

There's a reason, Larrañaga said, that they call this “The Big Dance,” and he's not going to slow down now.

"If I can entertain my players, bring a smile to their face or have them laugh, that’s great because I got thick skin," he said. “I don't worry about stuff like that.”

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