New Haven Register (New Haven, CT)

Stepping up his game

Hurley continues to evolve as a head coach

- By David Borges STAFF WRITER

“When he got in front of the team for those six or seven minutes, it was masterful. It was very calming, very soothing, very assuring. And they came out in the second half and played that way.”

— UConn assistant Tom Moore on head coach Dan Hurley

Tom Moore has seen Dan Hurley as a coach from both sides.

As head coach at Quinnipiac, Moore went head-to-head with Hurley when the latter was coaching Wagner. Six years ago, he joined Hurley’s staff as an assistant at Rhode Island, then came along with him when Hurley took over the UConn men’s basketball reins.

Moore has seen Hurley through good times and bad, but even he was taken aback at how masterful the fifth-year Husky coach was in handling halftime of the Huskies’ firstround NCAA Tournament game with Iona on Friday.

The fourth-seeded Huskies trailed 13th-seeded Iona and Rick Pitino by two. Hurley was 20 minutes from an ignominiou­s third-straight first-round NCAA tourney ouster, with a Hall of Fame coach on the opposing sidelines.

But Hurley, who may not always appear to be the picture of cool, calm and collectedn­ess, handled halftime with aplomb.

“It’s a long halftime,” Moore recalled. “He came in here, hit the team with a quick message, very supportive, very calm. He came in with (the coaching staff ), spent five, six, seven minutes with us, and we were more rattled than he was. He was very calm, very calculated, thinking things through, taking our ideas and sorting out his ideas.”

“When he got in front of the team for those six or seven minutes, it was masterful. It was very calming, very soothing, very assuring. And they came out in the second half and played that way.”

Sure enough, the Huskies blitzed Iona in the second half to get that monkey off Hurley’s back. On Sunday, UConn followed a similar script and blew past Saint Mary’s in the second half to secure a spot in the Sweet 16, where it’ll face Arkansas on Thursday in Las Vegas (7:15 p.m., CBS).

Would Hurley have been able to pull off such a halftime performanc­e, three, four, five years ago?

“I don’t know, I guess that’s speculatio­n,” Moore said. “But just in that moment, with all of us knowing the enormity of that game on Friday. There are things you know but you don’t talk about, and it was there. It’s been there since the New Mexico State game. But, he was cool as a cucumber in that spot, and it was great to see. And I think that snowballed into Friday and Sunday, as well.”

Without question, Dan Hurley has grown and evolved as a coach. Not just from when he first took over at Wagner in 2010, or at Rhody two years later, or UConn in 2018, but even within the course of this season.

Hurley freely admits his team was too tight heading into last year’s NCAA Tournament, blaming himself as well as his basketball operations staff for not creating the right atmosphere.

“There were things that we didn’t do to get our team excited

about the opportunit­y to advance in the tournament,” he recalled.

That changed this year, and coupled with Hurley creating a more relaxed atmosphere, the Huskies “March” onward.

“I think he’s grown a lot as a coach, just the way he’s connecting with the players, the way he seems more energetic, more relaxed,” said freshman Alex Karaban, who was with the team for half of last season as a redshirt. “You see him on the court as this upbeat, intense coach. But behind the scenes at practices, he’s a lot calmer, more relaxed. I think that’s rubbing off on us to be ourselves out there.”

Hurley can come across as stubborn and steadfast in his ways, not overly open to change. But there are numerous examples, just over the past year, to the contrary.

Not a huge fan of the transfer portal, preferring to recruit and develop “homegrown” talent, Hurley completely eschewed the portal two years ago. This past off-season, recognizin­g some team needs, he brought in four players, all of whom have filled key roles at different times this season.

Typically favoring smaller, faster teams, Hurley brought in 7-foot-2 Bristol center Donovan Clingan this season and has adapted to make it all work, despite some growing pains. Hurley admits he struggled with rotations and doling out appropriat­e minutes earlier this season, a likely admission that Clingan should have played more. Now, Adama Sanogo and Clingan form the country’s most dangerous twoheaded monster, passing the baton to each other to take turns dominating.

Though still a ball of energy on the sidelines, Hurley is noticeably calmer towards the officials, ever since a costly technical foul late in a New Year’s Eve loss at Xavier. About as much of a fan of zone defense as he is of whistlehap­py refs, Hurley has implemente­d zone more frequently lately. He even eased up on his famously tough practices as the season progressed, keeping his team as fresh as possible.

“As a great player, you have to adjust, but a coach adjusts as well,” guard Jordan Hawkins said. “He’s a great coach. He does adjust throughout the season, when things are down or when things are good. When we need to run a set or a defensive tactic, he’s on all that.”

“He’s always trying to learn new things,” added Moore. “He’s got a really inquisitiv­e mind. He always talks to people he respects a lot, always trying to get new ideas. He processes new ideas well, he’s super-intelligen­t. Offensivel­y, I was really impressed when I got to Rhody how good he was. I figured he’d be really good defensivel­y, just by playing against his team. When I got to Rhode Island with him, I was really impressed with how good he was offensivel­y. And he just continues, offensivel­y, to layer how good he is as a coach.”

“He’s never happy,” Moore continued. “We were third or fourth in KenPom in offensive efficiency, now we’re 18th in defense. What makes him good is that he doesn’t ever feel like we’ve arrived and we can get on auto-pilot with what we’re running. Plays we’re running, substituti­on pattern, that type of stuff, he’s always thinking of new ways where we can add another wrinkle and get another guy another look.”

Dan Hurley continues to involve and improve as a coach. But don’t take his players’ or assistants’ word for it. Just ask him.

“I’m still a young coach,” Hurley, 50, said, before somewhat crypticall­y adding, “even though I’m not going to coach until I’m old.”

Going the Jay Wright route?

“I hope so.”

“I have gotten better,” Hurley said. “I came in as a young coach. I’ve improved as the program’s improved, as the players improved. I think I’ll continue to improve as a coach. But, I’m also coaching this team with a lot more confidence, because I know I have a really strong team.”

OK, back to the players and assistant coaches.

“Ever since I got here, he’s taught me a lot,” forward Andre Jackson Jr said. “I didn’t even know about basketball. When I first got here, I was in complete shock. I didn’t know what a ‘hold’ was, I didn’t know how to attack a roller. He taught me a lot of things, from a technical standpoint. And he’s also just a great, emotional leader, somebody that you can really follow. He’s a great role model, somebody that puts his all into this, 11 months a year. It’s not like some other coaches at other schools, where they’re here and they’re there. He’s here for us, no matter what. Even when we lost in the first round, he was still there for us. He believes in us. I think he’s the best coach in the country. I would never want to play for anybody else.”

“Best coach I’ve ever played for,” added Hawkins. “I love him to death. I’m so glad he gave me this opportunit­y to come play for him. Playing in the tournament with him, going to the Sweet 16, it’s a great feeling.”

Dan Hurley has grown, evolved and gotten better as a coach. And there’s no reason to believe he won’t keep doing so.

“If you look at his pedigree ... that older brother and that dad, since he was three years old,” Moore said. “He’s so comfortabl­e in a gym, on a court, in a huddle, in front of a team. The more success you have, the more comfortabl­e you get with your coaching chops. I think he’s at a sweet spot in his career right now, where it’s got a lot of positive momentum, a lot of self-belief. Yet there’s still that hunger.”

“He’s constantly trying to improve.”

 ?? Rob Carr/Getty Images ?? UConn coach Dan Hurley reacts during the first half against St. Mary’s in the second round of the NCAA tournament at MVP Arena on Sunday in Albany, N.Y.
Rob Carr/Getty Images UConn coach Dan Hurley reacts during the first half against St. Mary’s in the second round of the NCAA tournament at MVP Arena on Sunday in Albany, N.Y.

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