Why UConn Is Ready to Win March Madness Again

Cam Spencer of the Connecticut Huskies reacts after scoring in the first half against the St. John's Red Storm during the Semifinal round of the Big East Basketball Tournament at Madison Square Garden on March 15, 2024. Credit - Sarah Stier—Getty Images

The University of Connecticut men’s basketball team won a national championship last season. The Huskies returned a critical mass of key players from that team, then added a guy from Maryland named Cam Spencer. With Selection Sunday upon us tomorrow, and the March Madness brackets flying around your office next week, Spencer’s presence in a Huskie uniform might just be reason enough to pick UConn to go all the way, again.

In Friday night’s Big East Tournament semifinal affair in New York City, Spencer repeatedly stuck a dagger in the hearts of St. John’s, UConn’s opponent in an energetic and chaotic Madison Square Garden. Fans and alumni of UConn, based in Storrs, Conn., take great pride in their ability to descend upon New York City during the Big East Tournament—the arena is essentially Storrs South—and their overwhelming presence negated any home court advantage that St. John’s, located in the outer New York City borough of Queens, might have otherwise enjoyed. Spencer, a 6 ft. 4 in. guard, gave the Huskie partisans plenty of reason to chug their beers, which many did with great fervor, during and after UConn’s 95-90 victory over the red hot Red Storm, who had won six games in a row under their Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino, in his first year at the helm at St. John’s. New York City was thirsting for more.

Spencer, however, repeatedly made the one extra pass that led to open three-point shots for his UConn teammates. Spencer, having constantly made the right play, finished the game with nine assists. He hit four of five three-point attempts of his own, and converted a nifty little pull-up leaner with just over seven minutes left in the second half, to push UConn’s lead to a more comfortable nine-point margin. His final two points, free throws with 20 seconds left, effectively sealed the deal.

Spencer, who transferred into UConn this season from Rutgers for his final year of college hoops eligibility, finished the semifinal with 20 points and four rebounds, and more than proved why he was a First Team All-Big East selection. Spencer is shooting a hyper-efficient 49% from the field, and 45% from three-point range. UConn advanced to take on Marquette in Saturday night’s Big East Tournament final. The Huskies are trying to win their first conference tournament crown since 2011.

Win or lose that game, UConn’s built to win much more in these next few weeks, and is a steady bet to become the first back-to-back men’s NCAA Tournament champions in 17 years, since Florida won it all in 2006 and 2007. Spencer’s just one key cog. Guard Tristen Newton flirted with entering the NBA Draft after helping UConn win the title last season: his decision to return to Storrs paid off, as he was also named to the All-Big East First Team. Newton is likely to make an All-American squad, and he improved his draft position. Newton finished with 25 points, 6 rebounds, and 9 assists against St. John’s.

Starting forward Alex Karaban, another returnee from last year, hits open look after look. He’s a dependable 50% shooter, including 40% from distance. Against St. John’s, UConn starting 7 ft. 2 in. big-man Donovan Clingan got into early foul trouble. Next man up: Junior Samson Johnson, who has a 7 ft. 5 in. wingspan and gave the Huskies a quality 15 minutes off the bench. He hit all three of his shots and bothered St. John’s on defense.

“We’ve got NBA-level talent that’s willing to screen and share and play for each other on offense,” says UConn coach Dan Hurley. “It’s a unique group of players that have NBA ability, but are humble and about team.”

Hurley brought his trademark intensity—and wise-assery—to the Garden on Friday. He’s taken umbrage to the behavior of opposing fans on several occasions this year, and got into it with a St. John’s supporter, who was wearing a garish red plaid blazer and sitting courtside in the first half. Hurley appeared to request that security eject the patron before halftime, but later clarified that he asked the guards to keep the man, Pitino friend Tom O’Grady, right where he was. After all, UConn was up 53-47 at half, and shot an incredible 63% from the field in the first 20 minutes. “I went over there to tell the ushers I wanted him to stay, not because I thought he was a good guy,” says Hurley. “I thought it might be bad luck [to kick him out]. Karma.”

He took a none-too-veiled shot at St. John’s and Providence fans, with whom Hurley had a verbal altercation last week. Providence was about to take on Marquette in the other semifinal—the Friars would lose—when Hurley said, “I promise you, if we play Marquette tomorrow night, there will be no incident because those people are incredibly classy fans and we have incredible respect for them.”

Hurley said O’Grady, who lives in Louisville—where Pitino coached for 16 seasons—cursed at him. O’Grady denied that charge. “I didn’t say anything to Danny,” O’Grady told TIME at halftime. “I don’t talk to coaches.”

When I relayed O’Grady’s version of events back to Hurley after the game, he cracked up. “Yeah, all right,” he said. “That guy. He looks like a straight shooter.”

Hurley histrionics, straight shooting, top-shelf talent, continuity, and chemistry: it’s all part of the UConn package.

One that’s looking nice for March Madness.

Write to Sean Gregory at