Hur­ley sets tough tone

Stamford Advocate (Sunday) - - Sports - By David Borges david.borges@hearst­medi­

STORRS — The clock was wind­ing down, and Tarin Smith col­lected the ball about 15 feet out and quickly lofted up a shot as the buzzer sounded.

The ball swished through the hoop, and many of his team­mates cel­e­brated. But only briefly.

Did it count? Did UConn fi­nally top 22 bas­kets in the span of two min­utes of a full­court weave drill? Or would they in­cur the wrath of their new head coach once again in this first official prac­tice of the sea­son?

Af­ter a dra­matic pause, that new head coach, Dan Hur­ley, shouted out, “Count it!” — with per­haps a Jim Cal­houn-like ex­ple­tive thrown in. Prac­tice was fi­nally over, some two hours and twenty min­utes af­ter it had started. UConn didn’t have to run pun­ish­ment sprints for an umpteenth time. More im­por­tant, it was a mi­nor vic­tory for the team — the kind the Huskies didn’t have enough of the past two sea­sons, ei­ther in prac­tice or in games.

The kind of mi­nor vic­tory Hur­ley is look­ing for as he tries to over­haul the cul­ture of los­ing that has en­veloped this pro­gram re­cently.

“It’s just a process we’ve got to go through to de­velop win­ning habits, and for th­ese guys to un­der­stand how im­por­tant the fun­da­men­tals are,” Hur­ley said af­ter wrap­ping up his first official prac­tice as UConn head coach early Satur­day af­ter­noon at the Werth Fam­ily Cham­pi­ons Cen­ter. “It’s sim­ple stuff that leads to win­ning: catch­ing the ball with two hands, jump-stop­ping, block­ing out, be­ing in the right de­fen­sive po­si­tion, what does a de­fen­sive stance look like? You’re kind of get­ting back to the ba­sics with th­ese guys. We’ve got a long way to go, but th­ese guys were all pretty will­ing learn­ers to­day.”

Hur­ley wasn’t so pos­i­tive at times dur­ing the prac­tice. At one point, he stopped the team in the midst of its weave drill af­ter for­ward Sid Wil­son bob­bled a pass and ripped into the team for its poor work ethic.

“It was Ca­sual Fri­day,” he said of the play, “only it’s Satur­day, and it’s first prac­tice!”

More sprints en­sued. “Ev­ery sec­ond, ev­ery half-sec­ond, ev­ery mil­lisec­ond mat­ters,” Hur­ley con­tin­ued to his play­ers. “We need to get 23 in two min­utes, and we just keep los­ing!”

The team failed a cou­ple of more times, and ran more sprints.

“Don’t be the guy that lets us down!” he shouted at one point.

Fi­nally, Smith stepped up with his “buzzer-beater.” Prac­tice was over ( “We’re still out there run­ning right now, un­less I got it,” Smith said about 20 min­utes later), but a whole cul­tural trans­for­ma­tion had just be­gun.

“If one guy lets you down, it sinks the drill,” Hur­ley said to re­porters af­ter­wards. “We’re gonna need ev­ery­body this year. We’ll know where we need to be when we get that right the first time. I don’t know how many takes that was, maybe seven ... It was a rough end­ing, but it was good.”

Make no mis­take, af­ter 35 losses the past two sea­sons — in­clud­ing an un­prece­dented eight by 20 or more points a year ago — the Huskies have in­curred a lot of bad habits that need to be shed. And they know it.

“Most def­i­nitely, we have some bad habits,” said se­nior Jalen Adams. “I think the one (thing) that can cover up all the bad habits is ef­fort. We’ve got to go out there, come out ev­ery prac­tice and ev­ery­body’s got to know that we’re gonna be the hard­est work­ing team, div­ing on loose balls. We’ve got to get that grit­ti­ness to our team.”

Added sopho­more Al­terique Gil­bert: “On and off the court, we’ve got to get bet­ter. We’ve got to be­come bet­ter peo­ple. (Hur­ley’s) try­ing to in­still that in us each and ev­ery day.”

Hur­ley has turned around pro­grams at Wag­ner and, most re­cently, at Rhode Is­land. He was a lot calmer in games and prac­tices the past cou­ple of sea­sons at URI, as the pro­gram com­pleted its turn­around and reached the NCAA tour­na­ment both years. He ex­pects to re­turn to his more an­i­mated ways this sea­son.

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