Hurley brings his new, fighting spirit to UConn

First-year UConn men's basketball coach Dan Hurley makes his debut on Thursday when the Huskies open the season at home against Morehead State at Gampel Pavilion. (John Woike/Hartford Courant via AP)
First-year UConn men's basketball coach Dan Hurley makes his debut on Thursday when the Huskies open the season at home against Morehead State at Gampel Pavilion. (John Woike/Hartford Courant via AP)

Storrs — Any given game this season, Dan Hurley expects to be in jeopardy of receiving a technical foul.

"Because I'm going to be fighting for everything," he said.

A fiery fighter packed with a knockout punch is just what the UConn men's basketball team needs to restore the program back to elite status.

The Huskies have experienced more gory days than glory days in recent years, stumbling with two straight losing seasons for the first time in 30 years.

They looked like they needed a competitive heart transplant last season.

They lacked fight.

They buckled in the face of adversity, allowing close games to turn into blowout losses.

With 10 players returning, including senior Jalen Adams who anchors a deep, talented backcourt, the makeover might not be a major one if Hurley can impose his will on the program, and his players can do the same to their opponents.

Since being hired in March, Hurley has worked on forming strong bonds with his new players and injecting his brand of relentless intensity and work ethic that he demands on a daily basis.

"He took his time in developing relationships with each and every player," Adams said. "I think the way he carries himself and the craziness he has about the game of basketball, everyone wants that. We know we need that if we want to be good. He preaches all the time, you have to be as, if not more obsessed with the game than he is if you want to be great at it."

The craziness starts with Thursday's sold out season opener against Morehead State at Gampel Pavilion (7 p.m., SNY).

All-out effort can help mask UConn's shortcomings.

"Obviously, we're not a very complete team in terms of having everything that you need in terms of size, length, rebounding, post scoring, perimeter shooting," Hurley said. "So we've got to be scrappy, we've got to be hard playing, gritty. We've got to have an edge to us."

"... You can win a lot of games in college basketball or any level of sports if you're the hardest playing team on the court. That's what I demand as a coach."

The journey back to respectability will be smoother if the Huskies adopt their passionate head coach's fight-to-the-finish personality.

If they manage to do that, they'll have a great shot at exceeding expectations.

"This team has to feed off me," Hurley said. "They have to become like me. They have to follow my lead this year. They have to carry my personality into the game. They have to carry my competitiveness, my energy, my passion. They have to become a player version of their coach this year. We have to play that hard. We have to be that engaged. We have to be that passionate. We have to be that all-in.

"... I have to be able to sell that to them. They have to like me enough and believe in me enough to show up that way, too. That's absolutely essential to be better than what people think this year."

The Huskies say they're ready to fully embrace the Hurley Way. He's proven with successful program building projects at Rhode Island and Wagner that he knows what he's doing.

"We're eager to win and eager to learn," Adams said. "We haven't had the formula to win games and he has. We haven't been too successful in the past two seasons. Last year, he won like 20 something games. That's something we want. In order to be good, you have to listen to people who've already been there."

Here's some things to watch about the Huskies, who haven't been to the NCAA tournament since 2016:

• Every successful team needs a superstar leading the way. It's time for Adams to carry the torch.

An American Athletic Conference preseason first-team pick, Adams is the team's top returning scorer at 18.1 points. He'll be a contender for conference player of the year honors.

Adams should benefit from UConn's improved guard depth after averaging a marathon 38.1 minutes per game last season.

But great players are more than just scorers.

Hurley is demanding greatness from Adams in all areas. He says the senior has to become a better leader and grittier guy. The fact that Adams recently violated a team rule, keeping him out of the closed-door scrimmage, is a sign that he hasn't fully bought in yet.

"I wouldn't be doing my job with a guy with his ability if I didn't hold him to the absolute highest possible standard every single day," Hurley said. "That's my responsibility as a coach to do that with him or else I'm cheating him every day of my job.

"This is a talented guy, a likeable guy. A guy that can be literally one of the best guards in the country. He has NBA talent. From here on forward, we're accepting nothing less him performing day in and day out like great players do, like elite players do."

• Injuries helped derail the Huskies the past two seasons under coach Kevin Ollie. It will be critical for their key players to stay healthy this season, especially Alterique Gilbert, an electrifying redshirt sophomore guard.

Two shoulder injuries limited Gilbert to just nine games in the last two seasons. Hurley has labeled Gilbert as a player you can build a program around.

Hurley's uptempo, guard-oriented style is perfect for Gilbert, who energizes his teammates and helps fuel the fast break.

Outside of Adams, there may be not a more important player for the Huskies.

• UConn's loaded backcourt, with Adams, Gilbert, graduate transfer Tarin Smith, junior Christian Vital and freshman Brendan Adams, is definitely the team's strength. Smith was the Atlantic-10 Conference's sixth man of the year while at Duquesne last season and brings valuable leadership.

They'll allow the Huskies to push the tempo, pressure the ball and stay in attack mode.

• On the other hand, the frontcourt is loaded with questions.

Ultimately, that group could be the difference between UConn residing in the top tier of the AAC and contending for a postseason berth or finishing in the middle of the pack, about where they're projected to be (fifth), and falling short of their NCAA tournament goal.

Last season, the UConn frontcourt lacked offensive production, struggled on the boards and played soft. They ranked 10th out of 12 teams in the AAC in rebounding margin.

Six frontcourt players who saw action last season are back. None of them averaged more than 4.4 points or 3.7 rebounds. Those numbers both belonged to sophomore Josh Carlton.

A few players need to emerge as consistent contributors from a group that includes Carlton, sophomores Tyler Polley and Isaiah Whaley, senior Kwintin Williams and a slimmer, quicker Eric Cobb, who dropped 25 pounds.

And they'll have to play with toughness.

"We've got to develop a much tougher team here," Hurley said. "Our sophomores have got to show up with more personality, more energy, higher motor. ... And everyone else for that matter."

Graduate transfer Kassoum Yakwe, an active and explosive 6-7 forward, is expected to bolster the interior defense. During his St. John's days, he was the Big East's top shot blocker as a freshman. He's finally shaking a foot problem that slowed him during preseason.

"I'm ready to help the team and put UConn on the map," Yakwe said. "I love to play defense. That's why they brought me here. I came here to protect the rim. Nothing easy."

Two other Huskies will likely be available sometime down the road. Redshirt freshman Sidney Wilson, an athletic 6-7 wing player, is sitting out games while serving an indefinite supsension. Redshirt sophomore Mamadou Diarra is recovering from knee surgery.

"We've got a lot of bodies," Hurley said. "We just don't have a lot resumes. We don't have a lot of production past performance. But we have a lot of guys that are hungry."

g.keefe@theday.com

UCONN vs. MOREHEAD STATE

Location: Gampel Pavilion, Storrs

Tip: 7 p.m. (SNY)

Records: UConn 14-18 (2017-18), Morehead State 1-0

Probable starters: Morehead State, 6-0 sr. guard A.J. Hicks (10 pts, 6 assists), 6-0 jr. guard Jordan Walker (13 pts), 6-4 guard De'von Cooper (16 pts, 4 rebs), 6-7 sr. forward Lamontray Harris (8 pts, 5 rebs), 6-7 so. forward Malek Green (18 pts, 9 rebs)

UConn, 6-3 sr. guard Jalen Adams, 6-0 redshirt so. guard Alterique Gilbert, 6-2 jr. guard Christian Vital, 6-8 so. forward Tyler Polley, 6-10 so. forward Josh Carlton

Noteworthy: Regional round game of 2K Empire Classic. ... Regular season coaching debut for Dan Hurley. ... Game is sold out. ... Huskies coming off consecutive losing seasons for first time in 30 years. ... Series: UConn won only other meeting, 129-61, Dec. 23, 2005. ... Huskies won all but one season opener (Wagner, 2016) in 30-year history of Gampel, 86-9 vs. non-conference foes there. ... Morehead St. beat Kentucky Christian, 102-82, in season opener Tuesday. Four Eagles scored in double figures, led by Green's career-best 18 points. .... All five starters and six of top seven scorers return for the Eagles, who went 8-21 last season and placed last in Ohio Valley Conference. ... Quoteable: "We have a tough challenge, but our guys are ready to go up to Connecticut and show what we've worked on and challenge them," Morehead coach Preston Spradlin said on team website. ... Three players making UConn debut: fr. guard Brendan Adams, guard Tarin Smith and forward Kassoum Yakwe, both graduate transfers. Yakwe missed exhibition game with foot soreness but ready to go.  ... Redshirt fr. Sidney Wilson out indefinitely due to suspension. ... Up next: UConn hosts Missouri-Kansas City on Sunday at 5 p.m. in Storrs.

– Gavin Keefe


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