UConn, Purdue showed blueprint for building NCAA Championship rosters — again

Glendale, Ariz. — The master plan for men's college basketball came back into view Monday night, but distracting flakes of confetti floated through the area. Connecticut won another national championship, its second straight, and it was the hardest thing to do. But the imprints and spurs that led directly to Happy Humanity in April were perfect for any coach or executive who wanted to watch. This is now successful. It's intricate and delicate and, honestly, not hard to find.

And it was right there behind the sad steps Purdue took off the floor at State Farm Stadium. There may be a lifetime's worth of sports in West Lafayette, Ind., but there should be no regrets about the architecture. What the Boilermakers did to earn a chance to be upset is more or less what any program in this game has to do. It doesn't work against a team. What else is new when UConn is the same team?

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“Pure dominance,” Huskies senior Hassan Tiarra said amid the joy of a 75-60 victory and a sixth national championship for the program. “Offensively. Defensively. Our communication with each other. This team is amazing.”

It is, but it's a high-definition remaster of an older movie we've seen before. National titles in men's college basketball are not won through player development or the infusion of young talent or the canny command of a transfer portal. They do it all and succeed. In due proportion, and perhaps in the order above. Before Monday's kickoff, Connecticut and Purdue reaffirmed what Kansas, Baylor, Virginia and Villanova told us earlier. What the Jayhawks or Gonzaga or Dayton might add, but destroy a pandemic postseason four years ago.

Meaning on schtick. The shiny new thing is thrown into a shoebox and shoved into the closet.

Why chase anything but this map? Why delude yourself into thinking you're the smartest guy in the room when you're the only guy in the room? This is the way, has been for some time, and will be for the foreseeable future.

“I think we should all shut up about this,” Huskies coach Don Hurley said a day before the back-to-back headlines grabbed hold, “and stop trying to help people who don't know what they're doing.”

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Here we agree that you have to be good, not just according to precedent.

“I've yet to see anybody come in here and be interviewed with bad players all the time,” Boilermakers coach Matt Painter solemnly noted on Championship Eve. But both teams playing on Monday had a total of one five-star recruit on their rosters. Meanwhile, a total of 27,063 minutes were played in Division I between the 10 starters. The right kind of good and the meaningless kind of good.

Purdue produced a senior All-American who may be the greatest all-time example of patient player development, a third-year forward sitting out his first year, two sophomore guards wearing some scars and a fifth-year transfer. A very selective guard plucked from the portal.

“A lot of people that come out of the portal, if they get a lot of guys, they try to get the most talented guys,” Painter said. “Somebody's got to get six or seven guys — there's no way six or seven guys are going to win. It's impossible, isn't it?


Around Zach Eddy and Braden Smith, Purdue had the perfect roster combination — to beat all but one team. (Grace Hollers/USA Today)

Yukon? A lot of innovation from year to year, but enough uniformity.

It was led Monday by a former transfer guard who finished his sophomore year with the program, Tristan Newton, the engine of a title game victory for the second time in as many years. It also started a third-year forward who sat out his freshman season, a second-year and a freshman who would be picked in the first round, and a fifth-year transfer guard who was plucked very selectively from Portal.

“Young players with isolated talent by getting players back into your program that can perpetuate the culture,” Hurley said, adding that he preferred not to divulge the not-so-secret codes. “Strategic portal additions that can bring you to the top later.”

The general concept isn't new, and it's more impressive when other programs don't try to emulate it. UConn in 2023 has grown veterans (Andre Jackson Jr., Adama Sanoko), a developmental transfer (Newton), an ascendant sophomore (Jordan Hawkins) and promising youngsters (Donovan Klingen, Alex Karaban).

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Kansas in 2022? Grown seniors (Ochai Akbaji, Christian Brown, David McCormack), a talented sophomore (Jalen Wilson) and a senior transfer (Remy Martin) round out the mix.

Baylor in 2021? A budding star (Jared Butler), in their third year with the program (Masio Teague and Davion Mitchell), is replaced by talented youngsters (Adam Flagler). Virginia's championship team was all juniors and one breakout sophomore. Villanova had Jalan Brunson and Michael Bridges as climatological rocks, holding up the youth around them.

Of course, after you put it all together, there are games in mind. Roll definition means getting there with more tunnels than a safe path along the way.

Everyone should want to do what you say and not leave when they don't like what they hear.

There seems to be a trick to that too.

“They're brutally honest,” Karaban said.

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UConn's starting powerhouse is a consensus top-50 recruit. He joined the Huskies in 2022 as a mid-year enrollee. He didn't play a single minute. “They liked me for my offensive ability, but they were honest with me, on the defensive end, you have to get better,” Karaban said. He took the fourth most shots on a national championship team as a redshirt freshman. He had the third-most shots for UConn heading into Monday. He's not going anywhere and won't be going anywhere unless it's for an NBA franchise.

It satisfies by degree, not by decree. “We don't kiss kids — during recruiting,” Hurley said. “We don't kiss it when they're on campus. We bring tremendous value to our players because we are old school and we empower them.

In the other locker room Sunday afternoon, two players sat in the stalls, happy to be here, maybe never thinking they'd be here. Ethan Morton played 880 minutes in 29 games for Purdue last season. He started zero and logged over 500 minutes this year. Caleb Furst dropped from 18.4 minutes a freshman game to 9.2 as a junior.

“It hurts me that they're not playing,” said Painter, who gets paid to make decisions for Purdue's advancement. Easy and fair to say. Not easy to digest when you are a person who has done nothing for the betterment of Purdue. As with the expectation that a player can read the room as the year moves on, it's especially challenging when there's no definable conversation about it.

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As long as no one is willing to tell, no itch. “I've told people this a lot,” Morton said. “If you're not going to buy into what they want you to do, you're going to end up in a bad way.”

Even though these two programs and their coaches have one key feature of the UConn program — big guards that smaller guards can't see or get past — Purdue can't stand it.

This is why the Huskies can start a celebration with 36 seconds left on the game clock; The artist stopped making deliberate mistakes. He certainly knew what he suspected for a while: He turned his program into a team that could beat every other program except the one on the other bench.

That's why Hurley had a command for his son, Andrew, to hold onto the basketball in waning moments while the shot clock ran down and UConn was willingly taking the offense: Spike that ball. Andrew Hurley forced his pops. An exclamation point, people who care to notice, how can anyone not?

The Boilermakers, meanwhile, have a balance to reckon with after the 7-foot-4 colossus graced the floor two years in a row. They won't be the same without Zach Eddy, who scored 37 points on Monday. They cannot be. However, they still need to be completely old, and that old age will round out a top-15 recruiting class matriculating this summer. It is a different version of the same program. “When you have the most wins in school history, you're the first team since 1976 to win back-to-back (Big Ten) championships in multiple games, and you're one wink away from winning it all, and that's the standard,” Painter said.

Feel free to do it the other way around. Both of these programs, or anyone else whose eyes have been opened the past few Championship Mondays, will be glad to be here again one day.

(Top photo of UConn's Alex Karaban, Stephon Castle, Donovan Clingan and Tristen Newton: Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

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