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American Stories – Hurley Becomes a Perfect Fit at UConn

Associated Press

The University of Connecticut men’s basketball team built the first real dynasty in New England when Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun led the Huskies to NCAA championships in 1999, 2004 and 2011.

Calhoun set the bar high, and one of his former players, Kevin Ollie, maintained that standard in his second year. The Huskies gave an immediate kick-start to the American Athletic Conference in the 2013-14 season as UConn completed a magical run to its fourth NCAA title.

But the Huskies were not able to consistently sustain that championship level. UConn did win The American Championship in 2016, but the Huskies slipped to 16-17 and 14-18 records in the last two years and made a change in leadership of the basketball program.

Ollie’s departure opened the door for the hiring of animated, energized Dan Hurley, the youngest son of a royal basketball coaching family in North Jersey. Hurley’s father, Bob Sr., who coached at Saint Anthony’s, is one of the few high school coaches inducted to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. His older brother Bobby, an All-America guard at Duke, is the head coach at Arizona State.

Dan Hurley has built a strong resume in Northeast circles, winning big at St. Benedict’s Academy in Newark before moving on to the college ranks at Wagner and finally at Rhode Island, where he spent six years. Hurley took an Atlantic-10 program that had gone 7-23 in the season prior to his arrival to a combined 51-18 record and NCAA appearances in his final two years. The Rams were 26-8 last year, including a 16-game winning streak, the second-longest in school history. URI won the A-10 regular season title and spent seven weeks ranked in the national polls, rising as high as No. 14. The Rams defeated Oklahoma in the first round of the NCAA tournament before losing to Duke in the round of 32.

UConn, located 44 miles away from the URI campus in Storrs, Connecticut, was always a job Hurley coveted and his hiring was a coup for The American, as the Huskies won a battle with Pitt for Hurley’s signature on a contract. Hurley felt comfortable working for a tradition-laden school that recruits the Northeast corridor and feeds off a rabid fan base in the Connecticut, New York and New Jersey markets.

“I have always loved challenging myself to see how high a level I would get this program to,” he said. “I like fixing things that are broken. It was that way at St. Benedicts, Wagner and URI, to take a program from the bottom and build it into a championship contender.”

It didn’t take the 45-year old Hurley long to understand where he was. As soon as he walks into the practice facility, he can feel the weight of expectations from Husky Nation.

“I was talking to Coach Calhoun recently and he told me, ‘There are four million people in the state of Connecticut and three million of them are Husky fans. You better know that, son,’” Hurley said.

Hurley has always admired what Calhoun was able to accomplish in Storrs, dating back to his days as a player in the Big East at Seton Hall and later as a coach at St. Benedict’s.

“It wasn’t just the championships,” Hurley said. “It was about the NBA players he produced and the careers they had after college. It wasn’t like they fizzled out. They produced.”

There is plenty of work to do. Despite its NCAA title and its conference championship, UConn has remarkably never finished higher than fourth in the regular season during its five years in The American. The Huskies were chosen fifth this year in the preseason coaches’ poll.

“I’m not fazed by that at all,” senior guard Jalen Adams – a unanimous choice as a preseason all conference player, said. “There are a lot of teams, one through nine, that could get to the top spot. I know what our team is capable of, and I’m just anxious to show everybody else.”

UConn and Memphis, another program with a national brand name and three Final Fours to its credit, are high-profile programs that gave The American instant credibility as a power conference. If those programs are able to return to their status of the recent past, the league as a whole will only benefit further.

“Memphis and UConn getting right is critical to this league elevating,” Hurley said. “We can be a five- or six-bid league, plus, once UConn and Memphis get back to doing things UConn and Memphis are expected to do. We’re perennially top-10, top-15 programs in the country, that’s kind of our pedigree.”

Hurley has the luxury of an exceptional unpaid advisor in his father, who won 26 state championships and more than 1,000 games at St. Anthony’s, and is one of the great minds in the game. The elder Hurley also doesn’t pull any punches in his critiques.

“He comes to practice occasionally,” Dan said. “He made some snarky remarks at the opening press conference about our players’ physical makeup they are still trying to get over. He wasn’t impressed. He’s trying to win those guys back over now. Actually, he probably doesn’t care. He has an amazing set of eyes, great ideas, makes great suggestions. He makes me think about our personnel, some of the tactics we use. He gives me a different way of looking at things.”

Dan Hurley’s first task will be to rebuild the culture of competitive spirit that has been missing. Now that talented, but injury-prone Alterique Gilbert is healthy again after two seasons of shoulder injuries, he, Adams, Christian Vital, fifth-year transfer Tarin Smith from Duquesne and freshman Brendan Adams should give Hurley enough backcourt depth to play man-to-man and press consistently.

“Last year, there werent enough guards to play (that style),” Hurley said. “Guys were playing 38 minutes and they were forced to play a lot of zone.”

The UConn frontcourt lacks established resumes. Hurley must hope that 6-foot-6 sophomore wing Tyler Polley produces from the 3-point arc and 6-foot-8, 225-pound re shirt sophomore Mamadou Diarra, perhaps Hurley’s strongest player, is sufficiently recovered from a torn meniscus so he can make an impact in the front court.

His new players, to their credit, appear to have bought in.

“He’s been amazing,” Adams said of his new coach. “He’s helped us instill that craziness for the game. It helps us being around him. You just become obsessed by his intensity. He’s quiet before practice, with his earbuds on. But one it starts, it’s on. You see him running around, smacking backboards. It’s crazy. I love his energy. I need to get more of what he’s got.”

The Huskies will have plenty of opportunities to showcase how far they have come when they play in the New York area. They will face old Big East rival Syracuse in the first round of the Wounded Warriors Classic, will draw either Iowa or Oregon in an early season tournament, then play defending national champion Villanova at Madison Square Garden Dec. 22. They also play ACC contender Florida State in the Never Forget Tribute Classic at Prudential Center in Newark before league play begins.

“UConn is responsible for some of the biggest moments, biggest shots in New York basketball – the Ray Allen shot against Georgetown, the Kemba Walker step back (against Pitt in the Big East tournament),” Hurley pointed out.

He would like nothing better than to recreate those glory days.



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