UConn is an NCAA powerhouse once again

HOUSTON — Dan Hurley was a prideful coach getting humbled. Connecticut had yet to join the Big East, and was scuffling in his second season in Storrs, Conn. It had just lost on the road at Villanova, in the midst of losing six times in seven games.

He was asked about the state of his program, which would finish fifth in the mediocre-at-best AAC that year.

“People better get us now, that’s all,” he warned. “You better get us now, because it’s coming.”

He not only called his shot, but three years later, Hurley went deep, too.

Nobody has been able to get the Huskies during this NCAA Tournament heading into Monday night’s national championship game, and few may be able to get them moving forward, either.

Make no mistake, win or lose, Connecticut is back. Back as one of the beasts of the Big East. Back as a national powerhouse. Back as a program that will strike fear into opposing schools and will not only be an NCAA Tournament fixture, but a Final Four contender for years to come.

Hurley is the driving force behind that. He’s a maniac — in a good way. He lives and breathes basketball. It’s been his life’s work, as the son of Hall of Fame high school coach Bob Hurley Sr., and brother of two-time national champion and NBA lottery pick Bobby Hurley, who is now coaching at Arizona State.

He has made a career of building winners, first at the high school level at St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark, then Wagner College on Staten Island, Rhode Island and now Connecticut. This really does feel like the perfect marriage, the intense Hurley and the rabid Huskies’ fan base. They demand winning at the highest level, which is part of Hurley’s DNA.

Dan Hurley has the Huskies back on top of the college basketball pyramid.
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“You don’t go from Rhode Island to a place like UConn unless you have like high-level internal motivation to be challenged at the absolute highest level as a coach and as a player because you’re going to be graded against the greatest coaches and players to play college basketball in the last 25 years,” Hurley said. “You’ve got to have the stomach to handle that. You’ve got to have the toughness, the self-belief as players and coaches to want to put yourself in a situation where if you’re not getting to Final Fours and not competing at the top of the Big East that you’re failing. It’s a lot easier to coach at places where making the tournament is enough. But for me, when you grow up in the way I grew up, you want to go and challenge yourself all the time.”

Now, there will be roster changes next season. Jordan Hawkins is almost certainly gone to the NBA as a projected first-round draft pick. Juniors Adama Sanogo and Andre Jackson Jr. could go pro as well.

But it is otherwise an incredibly young roster with upside, a scary thought for the rest of the Big East. Freshmen Donovan Clingan and Alex Karaban look like potential stars. Hurley has the fourth-ranked recruiting class in the country, according to 247 Sports, coming in. There are certainly transfer-portal additions that will be made depending on what is needed.

The man behind it all, though, is the most important part of what’s happening at Connecticut. Hurley, 50, has learned from previous mistakes in recent Marches. After losing as the favorite in the first round of the tournament each of the previous two years, he made adjustments prior to this year’s tournament.

Hurley backed off somewhat before the opening-round rout of Iona. Practices were lighter. He portrayed a calmness that rubbed off on his players. The result was a blowout that broke the proverbial NCAA Tournament ice for the Huskies, and they went on to cruise into Monday night’s title game. Instead of the tight team from past seasons, Connecticut has played loose and carefree. It has basically laughed off mini-runs by the opposition. Hurley hasn’t even called many timeouts, he trusts this group that much.

Donovan Clingan #32 of the Connecticut Huskies reacts
Donovan Clingan already looks to be a budding star for the Huskies.
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In the lead-up to the Final Four, Hurley was reflective about his team’s January issues when it lost six of eight, and faulted himself for spending too much time berating officials. He joked: “I was on the phone with the head of officials more than I was watching film. It was a mistake.”

Then, there was how last season ended, in an ugly loss as a No. 5 seed to No. 12 New Mexico State. The ensuing Monday, instead of taking a few days off, Hurley had exit meetings with players and coaches. His staff told him to take some time, think about the direction he wanted to go in, but Hurley had spent the weekend watching film and was certain he knew what was required.

“We just had to get better offensively. We had to become more explosive from the perimeter,” he said. “We needed more perimeter shooting. And I failed the team the year before not constructing the roster properly.”

He certainly hasn’t failed them this year, adding key transfers Joey Calcaterra, Tristen Newton and Nahiem Alleyne, while not losing the toughness and physicality his teams have been known for.

This feels like the beginning, the start of a period of dominance at Connecticut. Hurley isn’t the kind of coach who will be satisfied by a national championship. Success never slowed down his father. It won’t stop him, either. UConn is back.