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Dan Hurley's breakthrough season at UConn started with an apology
The fifth-year head coach surprised many by building a title contender this year in Storrs.
Dan Hurley is a success story today, but that always wasn’t the case. Despite coming from a basketball family, he’s forged this path on his own.
“Basketball for me, as a player, it wasn't a joyride. My career, fired at Rutgers as an assistant, high school coach for nine years, had to prove myself at every level.”
His father is a high school coaching legend. His brother Bobby is a former college star and NBA lottery pick. But none of that gets Danny from St. Benedict’s Prep to Wagner to Rhode Island to UConn.
UConn was his fourth rebuilding project but Dan Hurley has rebuilt himself many times, and after building a winner again in Storrs, he got with the times to revamp the Husky roster this offseason.
Around this time last year, a UConn team that lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament was losing four of its top five scorers.
And at the time, Hurley's critics had some ammunition. The Huskies had yet to make a Big East Tournament final and hadn’t really sniffed a regular-season crown. In two NCAA Tournament games, they were trailing by double-digits at halftime in losses that were not close.
Despite clear, consistent progress over four years, negative narratives were building.
Hurley went into that offseason determined, with a plan for taking advantage of the shifting landscape in college hoops.
But first, he did something you don’t hear of many high-major coaches doing: He apologized to his players. He gathered his core of Andre Jackson, Jordan Hawkins, and Adama Sanogo after the New Mexico State loss, and he told them he was sorry.
“I apologized to them for not having enough around them…in terms of enough shooting and enough different ways to open up things for them,” he said.
Hurley assured those core players that they were “going to have enough help…through Donovan and Karaban coming in, and then some strategic additions via transfer,” and that “we will not be back in this position, feeling like we do again next March.”
He recruited three impact transfers, Tristen Newton, Nahiem Alleyne, and Joey Calcaterra, and had high hopes before summer camp even started.
One year later: Mission accomplished. All three of those transfers have been extraordinary role players on a deep UConn team that is a legitimate title contender.
After two Round of 32 exits at Rhode Island and two disappointing first-round exits at UConn, Dan Hurley’s team is playing in the Elite Eight, where they are favored to advance to his first Final Four and the oddsmaker’s favorite to win the national championship.
And he’s done it the UConn way.
“We develop our young players and mix in transfers to supplement. So we're all about player development. We're all about our culture,” Hurley said. “I'm proud of how we've gotten here.”
It’s been a gradual rise for Hurley at UConn, but it’s built on a rock-solid foundation. A loaded recruiting class is coming in this summer; it’s hard not to think that this year’s run is only the beginning.
“Coach Hurley is my favorite coach I've ever played under,” Hawkins said. “He gives me the confidence, gives me the green light. He believes in me…after the season, I knew I had to change my game in a big way. Had to take a big step. That's what I did.”
One can’t also help but note the contrast between Hurley’s approach and Eric Musselman at Arkansas, who has a team built on transfers and NBA talent, or the Kentucky or Dukes of the world, who depend on blue-chip talent, or the schools that make moral compromises to have a better team.
“I feel we've built this the right way,” Hurley said. “We're not a transactional program. We recruit great people that want to come to UConn for the right reasons. We don't lie to them. We don't cheat to get them.”
NIL and the portal have changed the way teams can be built, Hurley acknowledged. He seems to be adding a few modern twists to program building while mostly still doing it the old-fashioned way, the way UConn always seemed to under Jim Calhoun: by finding tough motherf***ers, sprinkling in some top-tier talent, and molding it into a team.
“I think this is probably just the new normal and you can't rest on your laurels as a university or as a basketball program because you have a rich history or tradition,” he said. “This game has changed.”
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