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Hurley, Huskies get their mulligan

So now the UConn Huskies have their mulligan. Yes, even the great programs are entitled to them. And the C-minus the Huskies graded Saturday night in West Lafayette, Ind. ended the season, juxtaposing the simultaneous concepts of the future's hope and the present's sobering reality.

Hope: They got back to the NCAA tournament and certainly resemble a team that, as the stat geeks like to say, are "trending upward."

Sobering reality: They really didn't beat anybody good all year, save perhaps Southern Cal, in a game UConn scored all of eight points in the last 14 minutes, either relying on great defense or the Trojans' shooting disorder. They went 0-4 vs. Creighton and Villanova and lost their first-round NCAA tournament game.

And now they face the prospect of losing James Bouknight to the NBA draft. Somebody out there thinks Bouknight is ready for the pros, despite another stinkbomb Saturday night: 6-for-16 shooting and the postgame admission from Hurley, "James has a long way to go as a defender."

"Big credit to Maryland," Hurley said in the wake of a 63-54 loss to the Terps at Mackey Arena. "They showed their experience. We battled. Wish we could have guarded better. I'm proud of those guys and the step they took this year."

Ah, yes. The steps they took this year. Hurley has reminded us ad nauseum of the program's tenor before he arrived, although curiously throwing a bouquet at Kevin Ollie after Saturday's loss. Hurley has thought nothing of hammering Ollie all year through the prism of what the program looked like when he got here.

A sampling of recent quotes:

Feb. 27: "We've come a long way. I don't think people understand how far we've come in three years to this point."

March 3: "I don't mind the bubble. The bubble doesn't bother me. I don't even want to talk about that. Looking where we were that March-April when we came in, being 179-180 in (metric) KenPom and looking the different programs we were sandwiched between ... Now in year three, (we have a) chance to go potentially 11-6 (in the league) and back in NCAA Tournament."

March 5: "When we got there, things were messy."

March 17: "James has done so much for UConn. This place was in shambles when he got here."

March 18: "I could write a book, man. It's like you pop the hood sometimes, it's worse than what the car looks like. All those practices, every day when you're fighting over behavior and habits and mindset ... and the battle continues every day because you're trying to create a winning culture and a mindset. Certainly, it wasn't that type of mindset a couple of years ago."

To recap: Messy. Shambles. A more cynical fellow might accuse Hurley of throwing the previous administration under the bus to make himself look better — in a year that was lacking in quality wins. But that's a more cynical fellow. Remember: This is a mulligan.

It is folly, of course, to hope Bouknight returns for the junior season in college he needs. But this is the way of basketball now. They go to the NBA and learn on the job, rather than staying in college, helping State U and learning here. For what this is worth, Hurley on Bouknight's season:

"He had a brilliant start. The injury set him back. Obviously, he meant so much for this program, playing back in March again where UConn belongs. ... This was a big spot. (Maryland's Darryl) Morsell is an excellent defender. ... (Bouknight) was a bit indecisive tonight."

There will come a time — like next year — when merely beating DePaul in the Big East tournament and a one-and done in the Big Dance will be classified as abject failure. That's because it is for any program that fancies itself as the "blueblood" UConn does. But then, this is a mulligan.

"You're gutted here right now. Really disappointed," Hurley said. "We've got a lot more to do as a program."

This is where Hurley mentioned the program's history and past successes of Calhoun and, yes, Kevin Ollie. The same Ollie who left the program "messy" and in "shambles." Except that Ollie won a national championship here. Hurley has not.

So now the season is over. Better days lie ahead, at least if the general eye test is correct. Hope Hurley takes full advantage of the mulligan. His next tee shot needs to land squarely on the fairway.

This is opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro


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