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    Wednesday, May 22, 2024

    Hurley, Huskies back up their bravado

    In 2020, after the University of Connecticut men's basketball team failed for a third consecutive year to qualify for postseason play, its brash, second-year coach, Dan Hurley, issued a somber warning to the rest of the men's college basketball world.

    "We got some exciting young players that are going to lead us back," he said at a press conference. "We're gonna continue to recruit and develop, and bring in the type of players that will bring UConn back. You know, people better get us now. That's all. You better get us now 'cause it's comin'."

    It sounded like false bravado to reassure a fan base growing impatient with a program seemingly stagnant after four national titles under previous coaches Jim Calhoun and Kevin Ollie. And this was, after all, "the other Hurley," son of the legendary New Jersey high school coach Bob Hurley Sr., who had won 26 state championships, and little brother of Bobby Hurley, who had earned fame with back-to-back national championships as a point guard at Duke.

    Was the UConn program under Dan Hurley regressing to the dark era of the early to mid-1980s? Back then, UConn was a punching bag for Big East Conference rivals like Georgetown, Villanova, Syracuse and St. John’s — all national powers. It wasn't that bad, but the burden of proof lay with the coach, who was trying to live up to his reputation as a fixer of broken programs.

    Hurley was hired in 2018 to rescue a program reeling from NCAA sanctions from Ollie's tenure that were so serious they vacated every team victory from the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons. Ollie was fired and Hurley was hired away from the University of Rhode Island, where he had brought a losing program to two consecutive NCAA tournaments, advancing both times to the second round.

    UConn was different, though. With four national championship banners hanging from the rafters at Gampel Pavilion, expectations were higher and more urgent among the Husky faithful.

    After records of 16-17 and 19-12 in Hurley's first two years, UConn returned to where it was better suited, the Big East Conference. Before that, it had endured seven awkward seasons in the American Athletic Conference, where it fit like Dijon mustard with spaghetti and meatballs.

    Once back in the Big East, the team's renaissance was underway, though still not to the satisfaction of most fans. The Huskies finally qualified for March Madness in Hurley's third season as their coach. As a No. 7 seed with a 15-8 record in the pandemic-shortened 2020-21 season, however, they lost to No. 10 Maryland in the tournament's first round. The next season, UConn improved to 23-10 and a No. 5 seed in the tournament but was upset again in the first round to 12th-seed New Mexico State.

    While it was good to have UConn back on the national stage, first-round losses to lower-seeded teams were not what UConn fans had signed up for. Entering his fifth season with high-profile talent like center Adama Sanogo and guard Jordan Hawkins, Hurley was under more pressure than ever to succeed.

    All seemed good as Hurley's Huskies won their first 14 games of the 2022-23 season —including the first three in Big East competition — to rise to a No. 2 national ranking. This was what UConn fans had been waiting for.

    Then UConn lost its first game at No. 22 Xavier, 83-73. Well, it had to happen eventually, but then it happened again five days later at unranked Providence. After a win at home against Crieghton, UConn lost three in a row during a disastrous week in mid-January. The team's national ranking plummeted to No. 15, and there were calls on social media for Hurley to be fired.

    It got even worse when, after beating Butler, UConn lost again to Xavier, this time at home, to drop its record to 16-6 overall and a dismal 5-6 in conference play. The Huskies' were only two spots from dropping out of the Top 25 rankings.

    They regrouped, won eight of their last nine regular season games and seemed to have righted the ship. However, another second-round loss in the Big East tournament to Marquette again riled up the doubters, who wondered if UConn was destined for yet another first-round exit from the NCAA Tournament.

    That's when Hurley's 2020 warning to the college basketball world came to pass. What he had said way back then was "comin'" finally came. UConn tore through six NCAA tournament opponents by an average of 20 points, culminating with a 17-point win over San Diego State to win the national championship

    Four regulars from the championship team — starters Sanogo, Hawkins, Andre Jackson Jr. and reserve guard Joey Calcaterra — left to pursue professional careers, Calcaterra having exhausted his playing eligibility.

    Most figured UConn was in for a challenging rebuilding year, but Hurley knew better. Transfer Tristen Newton, who had blossomed into one of the best point guards in the nation, would be back, along with hot-shooting forward Alex Karaban. Donovan Clingan, a 7-foot-2 center who had been an effective freshman backup to Sanogo, would become a starter. Hassan Diarra, reliably productive off the bench, would also return. Hurley had also attracted Stephon Castle, one of the top high school players in the country, and Cam Spencer, a hard-nosed transfer from Rutgers, to Storrs.

    UConn would be formidable, but early talk of a second consecutive national title was dismissed as unrealistic ... at first.

    Then came more of what Hurley had predicted. Despite Castle's absence with a foot injury, UConn won its first seven games by an average of almost 28 points — some against soft opponents but wins of 10 and 20 points against No. 15 Texas and Indiana, respectively. The Huskies rebounded from a four-point loss at No. 5 Kansas with wins against No. 9 North Carolina, Arkansas-Pine Bluff and No. 10 Gonzaga.

    They got a rude awakening and a test of their mettle in their first conference game of the season when they were run out of the gym at Seton Hall. From there, however, they would lose only one more game the rest of a season in which they were at or near the top of the national rankings and favored to be the first champion to repeat since Florida in 2005-06 and 2006-07.

    They did not disappoint. After winning the Big East regular season championship and its tournament, UConn achieved the improbable, winning a second straight national championship and by an even larger average margin of 23.3 points per game and finishing the season with a record of 37-3.

    Hurley has done it in his own animated, sometimes hot-tempered fashion in which he relentlessly baits officials and mixes it up verbally with opposing fans. He makes no apologies. After all, who are we to criticize? Still, you never saw John Wooden or John Thompson threaten to knock out a loud-mouthed fan who's gotten under his skin.

    No, it doesn't reflect well on the university or the program. But what's more important to Hurley and his growing legions of supportive fans is that he and his players love each other, and, with a nod to Al Davis, they "just win, baby!"

    Bill Stanley, a former reporter at The Day, is a retired vice president of Lawrence + Memorial Hospital.

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