Hurley confident his UConn men's basketball program is on the rise

Cromwell — After receiving a rousing standing ovation following his introduction, Dan Hurley delivered the first of several memorable lines during his entertaining talk Thursday morning.

"You shouldn't stand and clap that long, we went 16-17 last year," Hurley said.

Entering his second year as UConn men's basketball coach, Hurley remains wildly popular with the Husky fan base. A sold-out crowd filled the banquet room at the Red Lion Hotel for the Middlesex County Chamber of Commerce Member breakfast.

Hurley showed Thursday that he knows how to win over a crowd, sprinkling in some humor while giving his State of the Huskies address. He provided updates about his team as well as commenting about each player. He raved about his newcomers and kidded that Southington's Matt Garry, a walk-on, was a "legend."

The fact that Hurley turned losing programs at Wagner and Rhode Island into winners in his previous two coaching stops makes him supremely confident that the Huskies will be regularly chasing championships once again down the road.

"I have a lot of confidence in the process because I've been through it before," Hurley said. "I've been through year twos before, been through year ones before in rebuilds, so it's like I know what to expect. I know what happens next. I've dealt with this already. There will be no surprises this year.

"We're more talented, we have more depth and we're more athletic, but we're younger. We're going to have some high end moments and then some moments where we're going to do things that will make me want to rip whatever hair I have left out of my head. That's just part of the learning curve."

This team feels different to Hurley than last season. These Huskies are more familiar to him.

Returning players have a season under their belts learning the Hurley way. Hurley brought in his first UConn recruiting class, a talented group.

"There's just a lot more buy-in in the huddle with this group of players," Hurley said. "So the huddle is a lot more of a comfortable place for the coaches this year."

But their basketball education is far from over, especially on defense.

Defense has been the focus of practice so far.

Hurley pointed out that postseason teams generally rank in the top 50 in the country in defensive efficiency. The Huskies were in the 100-110 range last season, he said.

"A way to turn our fortunes around quickly is to get a lot better defensively," Hurley said. "That's been a huge part of the first seven practices of the season. We're not coaching a lot of offense. Practices are really tough. It's like hand-to-hand combat. It's very, very physical. The coaches, led by myself, are unrelenting about our players being relentless competitors, being tough, being physical, not looking for the easy way out."

"... It's monotonous, tedious drills, day after day after day to build the right habits that will lead to winning. That's something that great programs do, successful championship programs, they do the hard things well. That's something that year two, practice seven (on Wednesday), we're still trying to instill that into the program."

Hurley will find out more about his team in the upcoming weeks when UConn plays at Harvard in a closed scrimmage on Oct. 24 and hosts Division II Saint Michael's College in an exhibition game in Hartford on Oct. 30.

Fans also will have a chance to watch the Huskies on Saturday when Hurley will run an open practice from 1-3:30 p.m. at Gampel Pavilion. Doors will open at 12:30. There is no admission charge.

Before finishing his talk Thursday, Hurley appealed to the fan base to come out and support the Huskies.

"We need you at these games," Hurley said. "You can't carry the three years of frustration and losing and not having everything you want. You've got to get past that and get behind this team and get behind me. I'm a sure thing. So just get behind us and enjoy the climb back up to the top."

Then Hurley chatted with some fans before heading out the door. He went to watch a big man recruit work out in New Jersey on Thursday before going home.

"It's a great place to live," Hurley said of the state. "We live in Glastonbury. I just about a month ago stopped using the navigation thing to get home. I know my way around now."

News and notes

• Freshman guard Jalen Gaffney is sidelined after spraining his ankle a couple of days ago. "Hopefully, he'll be back soon," Hurley said. "I don't think it will be more than probably 10 days or two weeks." ... Hurley was impressed with the way redshirt freshman Akok Akok responded to dislocating his finger in practice. "Literally in the middle of the huddle he had it put back in and had it taped while we were calling a play. He didn't miss a possession."

g.keefe@theday.com

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