Hurley sets tough tone
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.