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UConn, San Diego State mirror each other on floor, not in history

Dec 25, 2023

Connecticut head coach Dan Hurley and San Diego State head coach Brian Dutcher speak during an interview with CBS Sports' Seth Davis at the Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament on Sunday, April 2, 2023, in Houston. San Diego State and Connecticut play for the national championship on Monday. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

HOUSTON — Dan Hurley knows how old, how well-coached and, most significantly, how physical a team San Diego State is.

"I feel like I'm already working the officials for freedom of movement," the UConn men's basketball coach quipped.

When UConn faces the Aztecs in the national championship game on Monday at NRG Stadium (9:20 p.m., CBS), the Huskies will be facing an opponent not unlike some of their physical rivals from the Big East. In fact, not unlike themselves.

"We mirror each other in a lot of ways," Hurley noted on Sunday.

The programs' respective histories' are hardly mirror images at all. When UConn looks in the mirror, it sees four national championships, six trips to the Final Four, Hall of Famers like Jim Calhoun and Ray Allen. A truly all-time great program.

When San Diego State looks in the mirror, it sees Tony Gwynn, Kawhi Leonard, a whole lot of NCAA Tournament first-round ousters and a few trips to the Sweet 16 but, until this season, never further.

In fact, one of those Sweet 16 ousters came courtesy of UConn. In 2011, the second-seeded Aztecs, led by Leonard, had what was to this point their best season in history: 34-2 entering a Sweet 16 showdown before a partisan crowd in Anaheim, Calif. Kemba Walker and the Huskies didn't care, pulling off a 74-67 victory behind 36 points from Walker and 24 from Jeremy Lamb.

Leonard, the future NBA All-Star and champion, finished with just 12 points on 5-for-12 shooting in what has been the only meeting between the Aztecs and Huskies to this point.

Current SDSU coach Brian Dutcher was an assistant to head coach Steve Fisher on that team.

"I remember Kawhi Leonard got the only technical foul of his career," Dutcher said. "That was not fun. I remember Jamaal Franklin bumped into Kemba as he walked off the floor and Kemba fell down and Jamaal Franklin got a technical foul. Hopefully, we don't get any technical fouls (Monday). I'd like to keep our guys on the floor and not give them anything for free."

Whether the Huskies are a blue-blood program isn't really important. A win on Monday night would be UConn's fifth national title, all within the last 24 years. No other program – not Duke, not Kansas, not Kentucky – has won as many in that span. In fact, only UCLA, Kentucky and North Carolina would have more, all-time. UConn would tie Duke and move ahead of Kansas with its fifth.

Remarkable, really, when you consider how many true, strong basketball schools have never even been to a national championship game, or even multiple Final Fours.

This is San Diego State's first trip to the Final Four. But that doesn't mean much at this point. The success of Rip Hamilton, Emeka Okafor, Kemba Walker and Shabazz Napier has no effect on this year's Husky team.

Likewise, the Aztecs' relative lack of success in the Big Dance – heck, even Dutcher's experience as an assistant coach with the Fab Five Michigan teams in 1992 and 1993 – will mean nothing on Monday night.

"Our opponent is ourselves," Dutcher said. "That's almost John Wooden. It's like, be at your best when your best is required. And that's what we're going to try to do. If they beat us at our best, then we're going to congratulate them and shake their hands. But if we play at our best, we'll have a chance to win the game."

Indeed, Monday night's bout has less to do with history and more with matchups. And the Aztecs can be a problem.

"I mean, they're physical, they defend, they play really, really hard," Hurley said. "The good thing for us is we do that every single day. Like, we practice really, really hard. We come from a really, really hard-playing league. I think it's just going to come down to who outplays the other."

Hurley also pointed out that San Diego State is one of the most veteran teams in the country, with four seniors and a junior in its starting lineup. And while Hurley believes the programs mirror each other, he found similarities to the Aztecs in a pair of UConn conference rivals – one former, one current.

"Just the rate that they win at and the way they do it, the culture, the balance, the defensive commitment, the rebounding commitment, it kind of reminds you a little bit of (former Cincinnati coach) Mick Cronin," Hurley noted. "Maybe a little bit of Villanova, in terms of the way they're as one out there."

Of course, Dutcher has plenty to worry about, as well.

"Obviously, we have to control them in transition," he said. "They're as good a 3-point shooting team in transition that we've played all year. And the 3-point shot is such a weapon. We have to take away transition 3's. We have to do a good job in the low post on (Adama) Sanogo. He's strong and tough.

"And Hawkins is an NBA guard," Dutcher continued. "So, have to make sure we concentrate on him. And it's just a lot of things, a lot of things that we'll try to get done in 48 hours to be ready for our opportunity (Monday)."

History will be on the line Monday night. For UConn, a chance to further cement its place among the greatest college basketball programs of all time. A blue blood.

For San Diego State, a chance to win its first national championship and, to borrow a phrase from a former UConn point guard, "shock the world."

Two programs that may mirror each other on the floor, but whose respective histories cast very different reflections.

[email protected] @DaveBorges