Tuesday, April 23, 2024
HomeSportsQuest for Consecutive Victories: Dan Hurley's Pursuit of Dominance at UConn with...

Quest for Consecutive Victories: Dan Hurley’s Pursuit of Dominance at UConn with Intensity, Alter Egos, and ‘Benjamin Button’

It is 1 p.m. on a dismal January afternoon and aside from a few managers, Gampel Pavilion is empty. The Connecticut players have finished reviewing film but have yet to shuffle in from the practice facility across the street. Dan Hurley stands a few steps behind halfcourt. He’s wearing gray sweats, a hoodie, a UConn beanie, and a pair of reflector sunglasses. He would like it noted that he wore the sunglasses “way before Coach Prime.” Hurley starts launching halfcourt shots, cursing under his breath when the first few attempts clank off the backboard or, worse, airball short of the basket entirely. The Huskies stream in, clomping down the stairs to the court, and Hurley, still in his getup, keeps shooting. Finally, the ball swishes through the net and Hurley shouts, to no one in particular and everyone on hand, “Who’s the king of two in a row?” Ever obedient, star center Donovan Clingan yells back, “You are, Coach.” Hurley never swishes back-to-back shots. That doesn’t mean he can’t be king. It has been 17 years since a college basketball team has won consecutive national championships, the pursuit of back-to-back coronations becoming increasingly elusive as the sport dynamics have shifted. Not only has no team matched Florida’s two-year run, no defending champion has so much as carried the No. 1 ranking into February since the Gators. Until now. Until UConn. A year after dusting NCAA Tournament opponents by an average of 20 points per game en route to the 2023 title, the Huskies are potentially, and frighteningly, even more capable. That UConn team limped through the end of December and into January, losing five of six before finding its footing; this UConn team spent five games without Clingan, arguably its most critical player, and dropped not a game. The Huskies are 23-2, have won 13 in a row and rank fourth in the NET rankings. They’ve held their last 10 opponents to an average 60 points per game. All five starters average double figures, and they can go a reliable eight deep. All this when such dynasty building is meant to be impossible, when the NBA Draft and the transfer portal rob teams of roster continuity, and name, image, and likeness opportunities allegedly destroy locker room harmony. The Huskies were hardly immune to the sport’s passing fancies. Three of UConn’s players turned pro after last season, and another transferred out. The Huskies brought Cam Spencer from Rutgers to the team and promptly made him their starting point guard, and one player (Clingan), who has a marketing deal with Dunkin, has profited off his NIL far more than his teammates. Yet here are the Huskies, in position to be the kings of two in a row. Parked off to the side of the court, an easel holds a poster board with a picture of the Big East regular-season trophy. The Huskies cart the easel everywhere they go, changing the picture depending on what trophy they are pursuing. Earlier it depicted the Empire Classic trophy, followed by the Seattle Tip-Off Classic trophy. At some point, the conference tournament trophy will make an appearance, followed by the NCAA regional and so forth. The poster, however, looks like it went through a bad day with airport baggage handlers. It’s dented in the middle. There’s even a small chunk missing at the bottom. Hurley will tell you that he is more Zen, if not less superstitious. He walks into his office, sidestepping a blue-and-white fleece shirt still in its packaging. It has sat on the floor in the middle of the hallway for weeks because the Huskies have not lost since someone dumped it there. Hurley admits the foolishness of this while carrying an Echo Go+, which looks like a lava lamp cross-pollinated with a mini blender. Hurley presses a button on the gizmo that retails for $250 and blue lights swirl, creating alleged hydrogen-heavy water that is said to reduce oxidative stress, improve gut health, sleep and energy, all while helping to reverse the signs of aging. Later Hurley sends a text, extolling the virtues of the sensory deprivation tank he visits for 90 minutes, and how it’s helped with his “mental reset.” He says this mostly tongue in cheek – “I’m Benjamin Button,” he jokes as he chugs the water – but not entirely. He does believe he has found an inner peace and harmony that has helped cut down his on-court histrionics. Hurley has been hit with technicals this season, but has yet to be ejected from a game. Progress. Except there’s the poster board. The dents, nicks, and missing chunks came courtesy of Hurley whizzing a ball at the picture when his UConn players did not practice to the standards he deems necessary to win. Asked if Hurley is more intense this year, pursuing a second championship, or last year aiming for his first, neither Clingan nor Alex Karaban allow the question to be completed before answering. “Oh, this is way worse,” Karaban says. “He’s way harder on us this year. The intensity in practice, it’s just through the roof every day.” It is hard to gauge the difference, since a Hurley-run practice is never a picnic. There have never been scheduled water breaks or even opportunities to sit down. The Huskies, in fact, are not permitted to bend over at the waist when they’re tired. Hurley offers up some physiological reasoning, about expanded chests improving breathing, but then he gets to the heart of it. “Weakness,” he says. “That’s just a sign of weakness.” When Clingan, returning after nearly a month off, begins to bend over, Gavin Roberts, the team’s director of sports performance, rushes to his side. “No, no, no,” he says. “Don’t do that.” Minor infractions merit banishment to stair runs, the punishment so indoctrinated in the Huskies that when Hurley lays into Youssouf Singare for bad defense, Singare just turns and runs the steps without even being told. And despite buzzwords plastered in the practice facility declaring one of UConn’s tenets as “mindful communication,” there is little mind to how things are communicated. Were the Huskies to position a swear jar in the building, they’d likely not need a collective to fund their NIL. Elsewhere there might be wiggle room gifted to veteran players who helped you win a title a year ago. Here, there is less tolerance for even the smallest of transgressions. Hurley pounces on Clingan for failing to cover a shooter in transition. “I know you’re mad at me,” he yells. “Don’t be mad at me for being honest.” After a bad entry pass from Karaban, Hurley covers his eyes for an entire minute, too pained to watch as practice continues. Stephon Castle, the consensus ninth-best freshman, is chastised for a bad pass, lazy defense, poor decision-making and shot selection. After a bad defensive possession, associate head coach Kimani Young laments, “We never make plays on defense. Never. When are we going to?” The Huskies, it should be noted, are 18th in KenPom defensive rankings. Finally, as the blue team (starters) gets smoked by the gray team – with chip off the block/walk-on Andrew Hurley goading the starters “Whipping that ass, blue,”– the Hurley in charge shouts, “Champions don’t do that.” In his office later, Hurley sits on a sofa and plays armchair psychiatrist. He thinks maybe he’s so demanding as a coach because he’s trying to make up for what he failed to achieve as a player. He also digs into the psychoanalysis of what winning a title does to a man. “When you haven’t done it, you can’t tell me you know you can do it,” Hurley says. “You can think you have a great team, but you can’t be 1,000 percent confident that you can coach a team through six teams in the hardest tournament in the country and win. Now for us, we know deep down as a program, we can. I go home, I look at pictures in my basement and you think about how great it was. But then you also think, ‘Man, I just want to do it again.’” What’s notable is how the Huskies respond to him. Sit in enough college basketball practices and it becomes easy to read body language. Slumped shoulders, eyes cast to the floor and backs turned are the universal signs that the coach might still be yelling, but the accused no longer hears what he’s saying. The Huskies take it in stride, and although Hurley may be more intense this year, they seem prepared and confident in their ability to make it another great basketball season.

RELATED ARTICLES

Most Popular