Photo courtesy of Dave’s Joint.
By David Cordova
When you’re taking over a program such as the one at the University of Connecticut, you develop a sense of pride and passion for the program. Losing isn’t an option and winning is the only option. That’s something that fuels the fire for Dan Hurley.
Last season, in his first season at the helm of the Huskies, he inherited a team of talented players that were ready to play and gave their maximum effort. Unfortunately, the program finished a dismal 16-17 on the season. But that would lead into this current season, Hurley’s second at the helm of the Huskies, in which they plan on turning things around, slowly, but surely.
“We went 6-12 last season in the league. Plus, Jalen Adams, was clearly our best player last year, you know, we return a number of veterans, but we had one player on the all-conference team last year at season’s end, and he graduated. I don’t think any of us needs anything, [like] preseason awards. Preseason all-conference means nothing, Preseason player of the year means nothing. To be honest with you, I’m too busy recruiting and trying to get better.”
At the present time, the Huskies return 6-foot redshirt junior point guard Alterique Gilbert, 6-foot-2 senior shooting guard Christian Vital, 6-foot-8 junior forward Isaiah Whaley, 6-foot-4 sophomore shooting guard Brendan Adams, 6-foot-9 junior forward Tyler Polley, 6-foot-7 redshirt sophomore forward Sidney Wilson and 6-foot-11 junior forward Josh Carlton.
Amongst the newcomers is 6-foot-2 freshman point guard Jalen Gaffney, 6-foot-4 freshman shooting guard James Bouknight and 6-foot-9 freshman forward Akok Akok. A fourth freshman, 6-foot-9 forward Richie Springs, will be redshirting this season.
On coaching freshmen, Hurley replied, “Yeah, I have four of them at practice right now, and they’re struggling to pick up concepts on defense, you know, the early part of teaching them about spacing and the pace on offense and execution and defensive pressure on the court, plus like, what it means to be a great teammate, what it means to be about winning, you know, [there’s] so much that freshmen have to learn, and you’ve got to hope that you have a strong core of older players when you bring in freshmen, unless they’re of the quality of like, Zion [Williamson], I see what he’s doing in the NBA. If you can get guys that are as good as that, obviously the learning curve is different, but if you just have really good freshmen, without older players to support, it’s tough.”
Added Hurley on the freshmen, “We love our freshmen, they flash the type of talent that gets you excited about the future, you know Jalen [Gaffney], specifically is like really talented, a combo guard, athletic, can shoot it, can play point, can play off the ball, can score it, can play make. And then Richie, he’s going to be like the unsung kid of gem from this class in a couple of years down the line because they’re all still ascending, but none of them have physically fully developed. Strong men in high school and like overpowered people with strength, these are guys that are skilled and they’re on their way up.”
On Akok, who graduated from Putnam Science Academy in Putnam, Connecticut and sat out the spring semester last season, Hurley added: “I think what you see from Akok is a guy that’s going to give you a presence with his defensive length, and his athletic ability, with shot blocking, you know he’s a pretty good perimeter shooter at the three, and he’s a real good finisher, you know, he kind of looks the part of what everyone wants in today’s game, kind of like, a tall guy with length and athletic ability that you can put on multiple people defensively, and that can space the floor for you, too.”
This year will be a swan song for the Huskies as they will be leaving the American Athletic Conference, which they have been a part of for the last six seasons, and will return to the Big East Conference, where they established themselves from 1979 to 2013.
On the Huskies finishing out their tenure in the AAC before going back to the conference in which they had plenty of magic, he replied, “Yeah, my theme with I think, the team, and with the fans, and I guess with you guys, [the media], would be, what would I carry in the last three years of seasons. It’s not these Huskies, it’s not the young guys, it’s not their burden to carry, what’s happened to UConn basketball. I don’t want them [the younger guys], playing, trying to make up the last three years, we just want to try to focus on my second year, just being better than last year, developing our young players, continuing to develop, the type of culture that leads to championships, continuing to recruit better players, so that we can be the type of program that can achieve great things, but I think more of what we’ll talk about is in the last year. It’s just you’re not going to get, it’s not going to be a lot of hugs or tears on our departure [to the Big East]. So like let’s use that as fuel, probably going to stop in like, worse locker rooms and arenas, and we’ll get some people yelling some stuff at us, we’ll use that as fuel, but don’t harp on what the last three years have been like here, that’s not our burden to carry, that’s their burden to carry.”
On how the move to the Big East will help recruiting, he replied, “I think it may be easier to close a recruit at the end, because of where we’re trying to recruit from a geographical standpoint. We don’t have to talk around the conference in terms of how we’re trying to recruit. But no, if you were to talk about the recruiting class of 2019, it was top-15, top-20-caliber, I don’t think we had to change a whole lot, with what we were doing.”
So far, the Huskies have endured growing pains, but they are also on the right track as they have a 2-1 record going into tomorrow’s game against Buffalo at the Charleston Classic in Charleston, South Carolina. On Sunday, in front of a big crowd of over 10,000 fans at Gampel Pavilion, they pulled off a huge upset of Florida, rated as the No. 15 team in the Associated Press poll.
On December 10th, the Huskies will be playing Indiana at the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Outside of that game and the Charleston Classic, the rest of their non-conference schedule will be light. And then on New Year’s Day, January 1st, comes the farewell tour of the AAC, as they will be playing against Cincinnati on the road. Also on the AAC schedule will be tough games against Temple, Wichita State and lastly, Memphis and Houston, both whom were tied for first in the preseason conference poll.
Another big game for the Huskies to play this season will be against Villanova on January 18that the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, which will be a prelude of things to come in the Big East next season.
But for right now, there is a season to be played and a team that plans to get better.
As for Coach Hurley, when asked what can be expected of him in his second season, he replied, “Hopefully, not as long as a GIF video as last year, three and a half, four minutes, but we’re still trying to instill a swagger, a confidence, intensity, an urgency that’s been missing the last couple of years, and until that’s really formed, you’re going to see a guy on the sideline that’s still very, very urgent, you know, once thing is player-led, in terms of that swagger and confidence and energy, then I’ll be able to take that step back, but unfortunately, you’re going to see a little bit more of the fireball that you saw a lot of last year.”