BUFFALO — This may sound a little borderline obsessive-compulsive, sure, but then maybe you’ve forgotten the place that Connecticut basketball plays in the daily lives of the state’s citizenry. Perhaps you’ve forgotten the man who coaches them, a prince of coaching royalty who nevertheless coaches every minute as if someone is going to lock the gym forever on him.
Back in June, on the Storrs campus, folks started noticing something around the basketball offices. There were T-shirts sprouting up with “45:07” on them. The scoreboard clock at Gampel Pavilion was frozen with four digits — 45:07. Screen savers would have that number — “45:07” — bouncing all about their snoozing laptops.
“These guys,” Danny Hurley said Wednesday, “remember.”
Here is what they remember: With 5 minutes and 7 seconds left in the Huskies’ Big East semifinal game at Madison Square Garden on March 12, 2021, UConn led Creighton 53-50, with the winner getting a shot at upstart Georgetown in the finals. But the Bluejays outscored the Huskies, 9-3, won the game 59-56, and probably knocked UConn down a seed line or two in the NCAA.
There, as a 7 seed, UConn was pretty thoroughly outplayed by 10th-seeded Maryland in the East Regional’s first round. And just like that, a season of sweat and toil had vanished. Just like that, their first season back after flailing around the wilderness of the AAC was done, and the feeling was a vast chasm of loss.
All in 45 minutes and 7 seconds.
“That number is stuck in everyone’s brains,” Hurley had said during the summer, smiling a smidge at the notion but deadly serious in its affect. “I know as a coach, sometimes you think you can make a call tomorrow; ‘45:07’ makes me make the call today. Maybe one of our players wants to cut short a lifting session. Then they look to the scoreboard — 45:07 — and they finish their work.”
They are back, this time as a 5 seed in the West, this time after a 23-9 season that was culminated with a splendid battle with Villanova at a deafening Madison Square Garden on Friday. They are a better team than they were last year, in a tricky draw. Some 5 seed always gets knocked out by a 12, and New Mexico State will try to ease into that slipper. If the Huskies survive that, they’ll likely have to deal with matchup nightmare Arkansas. And then, later, Duke and Gonzaga.
“Before you talk about getting on a run in this tournament,” Hurley said, “you have to win your first game. And that’s what we’re focusing on.”
Actually, it’s about all they’ve thought about since March, since Mackey Arena, since the Huskies shot 32.3 percent against the Terrapins and fell into the abyss. This is Hurley’s fourth NCAA as a coach (his second at UConn after two at Rhode Island). He played in two at Seton Hall. He could tell his players chapter and verse precisely what’s at stake.
Or he could let the players’ own desire for redemption carry the day.
“In a lot of ways, they’re similar to us,” UConn’s Isaiah Whaley said of New Mexico State. “The war starts the moment the ball goes up. It’s going to be huge for us to box out, and it comes down to who’s the more desperate, tougher team.”
Said Hurley: “I think this will be the most intense game of the first round.”
You don’t have to worry about UConn in that context, and you certainly don’t have to worry about the coach. They will show up. They will be wearing their game faces. They will play with energy and effort, because that’s how they’ve played all year, and they won’t be swallowed whole by the moment.
“We weren’t overwhelmed by a sold-out Garden and Villanova on a Friday night,” Hurley said, and the implication was easy: Take your best shot, but don’t expect to see the Huskies blink.
They blinked last year, and they paid for it with their season, and for 52 weeks the folks involved in Connecticut basketball have waited for a do-over, a chance to rewind those final 45 minutes and 7 seconds. Thursday, at KeyBank Arena, they finally get to write a new chapter, finally, they get to stick the landing.