Nearly four years ago to the day, the UConn Huskies visited the Villanova Wildcats and fell 61-55 in a non-conference affair. The Huskies, still a part of the American Athletic Conference at the time, were sputtering through a handful of middle-of-the-road seasons when they suffered this loss at Villanova. UConn head coach Dan Hurley had improved the team’s output since taking over the program in 2018 but knew the Huskies weren’t close to their ceiling yet.

“People better get us now,” Hurley said that night in 2020. “That’s all. You better get us now. Because it’s coming.”

No. 1 UConn No Longer Looking Up at Basketball Powers

And now? Top-ranked Connecticut (17-2, 7-1 Big East) find themselves alone atop the Big East standings following a road win at the Villanova Wildcats (11-7, 4-3 Big East). The 66-65 nail-biter put UConn in sole possession of first place in the league and likely another week leading the AP Top 25.

Hurley’s Huskies were still fighting their way back to relevance when he delivered that quote in 2020. However, after a blowout loss against those same Wildcats the year prior, UConn’s tightly contested 2020 bout with Villanova served as a harbinger of what was to come for Connecticut.

“I was extremely confident walking out of there that day,” Hurley said Friday on the way to Philadelphia. “I just, I saw the gap closing between where we were, and where we were that day, versus the elite program in college. Jay [Wright’s] Wildcats, they were the top cats. In all of college, they were the barometer. The way we played that day, being in it until the end and knowing that our culture was going to keep improving and our talent level was going to keep increasing, I just felt like we were on a great track that day. It was a gut wrenching loss, but I knew it was coming,” said Hurley.

Winning Through It All

The current iteration of the Huskies aren’t as concerned about whether the wins will come, but how the wins come. UConn has seen tangible improvements each season since that night in 2020, but it hasn’t come without surviving bumps along the way. They know the rest of the country has no interest in waiting up for them, though. So, the 2024 Huskies have become the best team in the nation winning without being 100%.

A season ago, the team started the season 14-0, soaring to No. 2 in the AP Poll before losing 6-of-9 in the month of January. They survived it, going on to win the national championship.

Star freshman guard Stephon Castle was pulled from the second game of this season with a knee injury that kept him sidelined for the next six games. They survived it, winning 5-of-6 including the Saatva Empire Classic over then-No. 15 Texas.

The Return of Donovan Clingan

Their most recent obstacle came about a month ago. Sophomore center Donovan Clingan injured his foot in a Dec. 20 loss at Seton Hall which kept him out for the next five games. Not only did UConn survive it going 5-0 over that stretch, they excelled reaching heights unseen in Storrs in 15 years earning the No. 1 spot in the AP Poll.

The team has plenty of depth in the backcourt, but not nearly as much under the basket. Without Clingan, the Huskies turned to Samson Johnson to take over his minutes. Johnson, a slimmer, more athletic center, isn’t an exact match to what Clingan brings to the table. The team also featured a smaller lineup with 6-foot-8 wing Alex Karaban manning the paint in Clingan’s absence.

Despite the lack of depth, UConn took care of business in their typical fashion. They outscored their opponents in the paint in each of those five games and outrebounded four of the five teams without their 7-foot-2 centerpiece.

Saturday night’s game at Villanova was Clingan’s second since returning to the rotation and UConn’s seventh-straight win. Hurley’s characterization of their night in Philadelphia could have also served as a blurb of how Connecticut has re-solidified their place in the college basketball landscape.

“This is a manhood test every time you step on the court in the Big East,” Hurley said Saturday. “It’s UFC-type [games]. It’s steel cage. You could throw elbows, it’s jiu-jitsu, it’s Muay Thai, it’s everything,” said Hurley.

Up Next for UConn

The Huskies are off until Sunday, Jan 28. They’ll host Xavier in downtown Hartford at the XL Center at noon on FS1.

Akash Mahi, a dedicated enthusiast of the game, is a recognized expert in the domain of tennis balls. With a keen understanding of materials and aerodynamics, he has contributed to the evolution of tennis ball design, enhancing playability and performance. Mahi's expertise continues to impact both casual players and professionals alike.