UConn's climb back to national relevance took a major step forward when the Huskies were announced as a No. 7 seed in this year's NCAA Tournament.
UConn (15-7), which has won four national titles since 1999, is returning to the tournament for the 34th time, but the first since losing to Kansas in the second round during the 2015-16 season.
The Huskies are scheduled to play No. 10-seed Maryland on Saturday. UConn won its last national championship in 2014, also as a seventh seed.
“This is when we thrive,” sophomore guard James Bouknight said Sunday. “This is our time of the year and we just want to go out there and put on a show and make fans proud.”
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The Huskies had put up 30 straight winning seasons before going 16-17 in 2016-17. A slew of transfers, the revelation of NCAA violations and the firing of coach Kevin Ollie followed.
Dan Hurley was hired from Rhode Island, where he had taken a program that had gone 7-23 in the season before his arrival to two consecutive NCAA appearances and a 51-18 record in his final two years.
He said Sunday that taking over UConn was like buying a car, then opening the hood and finding things were worse than how they looked on the outside.
“I love these rebuilds,” he said. “I love these jobs in coaching, rebuilding a program. It's very gratifying thinking about where we were a couple years ago.”
Last year, the Huskies had their first winning season in four years, finishing 19-12 and on a five-game winning streak when the pandemic shut things down.
The program returned to the Big East this season after seven years in the American Athletic Conference.
They started the season 5-1, but lost Bouknight (19 points per game) to an elbow injury in a January win over Marquette. The team went 4-4 while the sophomore star was sidelined, but have gone 6-2 since his return.
They had won five straight and a were a popular pick to win the Big East Tournament before losing 59-56 Friday to Creighton in the semifinals. The Bluejays have handed the Huskies three of their seven losses this season.
Bouknight, who missed several key shots at the end of that game, said he spent a lot of time over the weekend in the dark in his hotel room, staring at the ceiling.
Hurley has told his star that he doesn't need to wear a super hero cape during the NCAA Tournament and needs to let the games come to him.
And while Booknight said he understands that, he's also anxious to show what he can do on a big stage.
“I know I let a lot of people down that night and I'm just ready," he said. “I'm ready to go out there and perform and play like everyone knows I can play.”
UConn and Maryland have some NCAA history. UConn beat Maryland, 99-89, in the 1995 regional semifinals and the Terps beat the Huskies, 90-82 in the 2002 regional finals on their way to the program’s only NCAA title.
UConn will be trying to earn a fifth, but at the moment is taking joy in just being back.
“In college basketball, it is even more exciting when UConn is relevant and really, really good and playing in March," Hurley said. “It's a university and state that just really loves its basketball team.”