Huskies set for emotional battle with No. 11 FSU
STORRS — Dan Hurley is a one-man, emotional roller coaster on the sidelines during games. Happy, angry, frustrated, excited, bewildered, angry again ... the UConn head coach pretty much covers ’em all.
It was a different emotion that overcame Hurley as he spoke to reporters following UConn’s practice on Thursday. The Huskies are heading to Newark, N.J. to face No. 11 Florida State on Saturday (6:30 p.m., ESPN2) in one of two Never Forget Tribute Classic games at Prudential Center. The doubleheader (Mississippi State faces Clemson in the opener) raises money for the educational aspirations of the children of the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Hurley is as New Jersey as they get, and like virtually anyone from the Tri-State area at the time, was affected by the tragedy. His close friend’s brother, a New York City fireman, died that day.
“There’s so many of those types of stories,” Hurley said, a bit choked up, his voice quivering with emotion, “you just get a chill as you get to Saturday.”
UConn (7-2) will stay in a hotel in Jersey City, Hurley’s home town, where he starred under his Hall of Fame head coach father, Bob Sr., at St. Anthony’s High. The game will be played just a couple of blocks down from St. Benedict’s Prep, home of Hurley’s first head coaching job, where he took over a struggling program in a dilapidated part of the city and turned it into a national powerhouse program, churning out future pros like J.R. Smith and Lance Thomas.
He’ll have dozens of people — family, friends, former
coaches, teammates and players — in the stands.
“I’ll take the time to appreciate the journey, probably during the anthem look around and say, ‘Wow, I’m coaching UConn,’ ” Hurley noted. “Twelve years ago or so, I was coaching against Petty School in front of 200 people. So, pretty cool.”
Then, reality will hit hard, like a 7-foot-4, 268-pound center. Or, like Christ Koumadje, Florida State’s senior center, or any number of tough, physical Seminole players.
“For us to have a chance on Saturday,” said Hurley, “we’re gonna have to take on a locked-in approach, and not give away many — if any — possessions, offensively or defensively. We can’t have any weakness in terms of shot selection, driving it into their length and throwing wild things up on the backboard, or turning it over and they’re getting runouts. We’re gonna have to play really responsibly at both ends for a full 40 minutes. If we have any lulls with these guys, it’ll get away from us quick.”
Florida State (7-1) returns seven of its top eight scorers from last year’s Elite Eight team. It has picked off Florida, LSU and Purdue already, with its lone loss coming to defending national champ Villanova. And the Seminoles have done it all without last year’s leading scorer, forward Phil Cofer, who has been sidelined by a foot injury and is unlikely to play on Saturday.
The Huskies are hungry for a big, non-conference win. They got one against then-No. 15 Syracuse a few weeks ago, though the Orange were without star point guard Frank Howard, got blown out by Oregon the following night and are currently unranked. UConn got blown out the following night by Iowa. And on Sunday, the Huskies squandered a great chance, losing by four to a strong (though unranked) Arizona team in Hartford.
Opportunity No. 3 awaits on Saturday in Jersey.
“When you go up a competition level,” Hurley added, “the war that goes on when the ball goes up on the glass — especially against a Florida State team that really tries to punk you physically on the backboard and with their physicality — I would say games like this, (the key) would be our ability to guard the ball and stay in front of the ball with their physical drivers and the war that goes on when the ball goes up. When they shoot it, they attack it.”
RIM RATTLINGS: Speaking of tough Jersey guys, UConn grad senior Tarin Smith chipped his tooth after accidentally bumping into teammate Tyler Polley midway through the first half of Wednesday night’s win over Lafayette in Hartford. He stayed in the game and went on to score seven of his nine points in the latter half.
Smith had to get a root canal on Thursday morning, and was due to get the tooth crowned on Friday before the Huskies left for Newark. He’ll wear a mouthguard from now on, something his mom has told him to do since he was a youngster.