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UConn鈥檚 repeat try may be the last for a while. 鈥業t鈥檚 going to get tougher,鈥 coach Dan Hurley says

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BOSTON (AP) 鈥 UConn is trying to be the first team to win back-to-back NCAA men鈥檚 basketball titles in 17 years 鈥 and that鈥檚 not all.

With three more March Madness wins, the Huskies could wind up as the last team ever to repeat as champions.

鈥淚t鈥檚 tough. It鈥檚 not easy,鈥 UConn coach Dan Hurley said Friday as his top-seeded Huskies prepared to play No. 3 Illinois for a spot in their second straight Final Four. 鈥淚t鈥檚 going to get tougher.鈥

Repeating has never been easy, though John Wooden figured it out pretty well at UCLA, winning seven in a row from 1967-73 behind future Hall of Famers like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 鈥 then known as Lew Alcindor 鈥 and Bill Walton.

The tournament was much different then, with a smaller field that included only one team from each of the major conferences. And players would stay at one school, unable to leave early for the NBA or easily transfer. Even when Duke repeated in 1991 and 鈥92 and Florida did it in 鈥06 and 鈥07, it was a much different era.

With the advent of the transfer portal and the one-and-done pro prospect 鈥 along with name, image and likeness deals that can lure players elsewhere 鈥 long-term team-building has largely gone the way of the two-handed set shot.

鈥淥h, it鈥檚 harder. It鈥檚 way harder,鈥 Hurley said. 鈥淥bviously, you鈥檙e managing your roster with the portal, with NIL. You鈥檇 better be a more skilled coach these days because you鈥檙e dealing with a lot more stuff.

鈥淔or us, I think we鈥檝e made it look easy in these past two tournaments,鈥 Hurley said. 鈥淏ut it鈥檚 hard.鈥

UConn beat San Diego State 82-52 in the Sweet 16 on Thursday night in a rematch of last year鈥檚 title game, becoming the first defending champions since the 2007 Gators to make it back to the Elite Eight. Even so, this year鈥檚 Huskies are much different than last year鈥檚 NCAA champions.

Adama Sanogo (Bulls), Jordan Hawkins (Pelicans) and Andre Jackson (Bucks) left for the NBA. Guard Stephon Castle arrived as a freshman through old-fashioned recruiting, and guard Cam Spencer transferred from Rutgers.

鈥淭hey fit,鈥 Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. 鈥淭heir staff has done an incredible job of evaluating the guys that fit them.鈥

The Illini have supplemented a team that lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last year and hasn鈥檛 been to a regional final since making it to the 2005 championship game.

Forward Marcus Domask transferred from Southern Illinois. Forward Quincy Guerrier spent two seasons apiece at Syracuse and Oregon. Guard Terrence Shannon Jr. spent three years at Texas Tech. Center Dain Dainja came over after a year at Baylor.

They joined forward Coleman Hawkins, who has stuck around in Champaign for four years, and guard Ty Rogers, who is in his second year with the Illini.

鈥淲e鈥檝e found success in the portal and at a very, very high level based on character. Based on not just talent,鈥 said Underwood, whose team reached the Elite Eight with a 72-69 win over Iowa State on Thursday night.

鈥淲e鈥檝e got great carryover in our program. So we鈥檝e added the right pieces. But it鈥檚 got to be the right mesh,鈥 Underwood said. 鈥淚n our case, it鈥檚 been about: Yeah, they鈥檝e got to be good. But it鈥檚 the right character pieces.鈥

At UConn, the new players complemented guard Tristen Newton, who joined the Huskies for their title run last year after three years at East Carolina. Forward Alex Karaban was a freshman for the national championship team, and so was center Donovan Clingan, who at 7-foot-2 could have been a first-round NBA draft pick but decided to come back for more seasoning.

鈥淚 really feel like I wanted to come back and prove what I could do,鈥 he said. 鈥淭he college game鈥檚 as fun as it gets. Winning a national championship, I definitely wanted to try to compete for another one.鈥

Hurley said NIL money that wouldn鈥檛 have been available to Clingan even five years ago can ease the loss of an NBA paycheck. But mostly it was the 20-year-old Connecticut native鈥檚 maturity in understanding that he still had to improve to play in the NBA.

鈥淭here鈥檚 no rush to get to professional sports, the NBA, the NFL with what you can earn as a college athlete (now),鈥 Hurley said. 鈥淚f you鈥檙e physically and emotionally not ready to go into a man鈥檚 world, and your game is not there; if you鈥檙e emotionally, in terms of maturation, not ready to be in that world with grown-ass men, fighting for your life on a daily basis in that league, then you should return to college.

鈥淭he objective is not getting drafted to the NBA,鈥 Hurley said. 鈥淭he objective is to have a 12- to 15-year career in the NBA, and Donovan wasn鈥檛 ready for that last year. He鈥檚 a very self-aware kid.鈥

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AP March Madness bracket: /hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and coverage: /hub/march-madness

Golen covers Boston sports for 老澳门六合彩, with a little bit of sports law and Olympic beach volleyball and curling mixed in.