Dan Hurley brings Connecticut back into the national spotlight

Dan Hurley brings Connecticut back into the national spotlight


HOUSTON — It’s Connecticut again. No, it’s Connecticut for good. Over the past dozen years, the Huskies have undergone stress test after stress test, challenging the vitality of the powerhouse that Jim Calhoun built with his combative genius. And here are the updated results: On Monday, Dan Hurley can become the third coach since 2011 to lead Connecticut to a men’s basketball national title.

Pretty sure that’s a passing grade.

Pretty sure that’s an indicator the program has the sturdiness to hold its elite status for generations.

It hasn’t been easy, but the Huskies keep rising. On the final night of this wild, weird, parity-filled season, they burst into the championship game amid one of the most dominant runs in recent NCAA tournament history. San Diego State, the only team left to stop them, will need every bit of its fearless and relentless identity to curb the growing sense of inevitability surrounding Connecticut. If this team is as unstoppable as its nearly 21-point average margin of victory in the tournament, Hurley will complete a strikingly swift five-year turnaround.

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It’s the most thorough remodeling since Calhoun arrived from Northeastern in 1987. During his 26 seasons in Storrs, Conn., the Hall of Famer won 625 games and three national titles. He went to four Final Fours and turned the program into an NBA factory, excelling with a gruff style and turning only more defiant as he battled NCAA sanctions and survived three bouts of cancer.

When Calhoun left in 2012, it seemed the program was destined to slide. His successor, Kevin Ollie, inherited a team ineligible for the 2013 postseason because of poor academics. But the next season, Ollie led the Huskies to their fourth national championship. They weren’t back; they hadn’t gone anywhere. And with Ollie, a former Connecticut player and assistant coach, they were able to keep their greatness within the Calhoun coaching tree.

Ollie’s tenure fell apart, however. He would make the tournament just one more time. His six-year tenure concluded with two straight losing seasons, and even those few victories were vacated by the NCAA for violations.

Five years ago, Hurley took over as a coach from outside the family. It was a true new regime, the most important test of all. When he left Rhode Island to attempt this rebuild, he skimmed over the Huskies’ ratings for the 2017-18 season. Stats maven Ken Pomeroy had ranked them 179th. Connecticut looked like a middling team, and it now played in the American Athletic Conference, which felt like a remote outpost compared with its glory days in the Big East.

“Not much foundation left in place,” Hurley said. “You get that KenPom sheet the first staff meeting to start talking basketball … and you start looking at who was 165 and who was 172. And [Connecticut] shouldn’t be in this neighborhood.”

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The Huskies abandoned that neighborhood quickly. After going 16-17 in his first season, Hurley has gradually lifted the program to its current 31-8 record. Connecticut agreed to pay a $17 million exit fee in 2019 to leave the AAC and return to the Big East.

The coach can remember every brick of this rebuild, including the ones that hit him in the head.

“While you’re doing it, you’re getting everyone’s best shot. When you’re rebuilding Rhode Island, no disrespect, you’re not getting everyone’s best shot. Even when you’re down and you have ‘U-Conn.’ across your chest, it’s still a Super Bowl for the other coach and the other players because of the history and tradition. So while you’re trying to make that climb back up the mountain, you’re starting over. History and tradition doesn’t help you win anything. It just probably makes your opponents want to beat you more, and it adds a little bit more pressure going into every competition.”

Hurley has been able to handle every aspect of this challenge. His life experiences qualified him for the task. As the son of a Hall of Fame high school coach and the brother of one of college basketball’s greatest point guards, Hurley knows expectations, and even better, he knows his limitations in handling pressure.

Hurley doesn’t see ghosts when thinking about trying to live up to Connecticut’s past. His tunnel vision is aimed at possibility.

“You’ve got to have the stomach to handle that,” Hurley said. “You’ve got to have the toughness, the self-belief as players and coaches to want to put yourself in a situation where if you’re not getting to Final Fours and not competing at the top of the Big East that you’re failing. It’s a lot easier to coach at places where making the tournament is enough. But for me, when you grow up in the way I grew up, you want to go and challenge yourself all the time.”

Connecticut doesn’t yet have the surefire NBA lottery pick, but other than that, this is definitely the caliber of team Calhoun would have put together in his prime. Hurley and his staff have used every team-building tool to their advantage, but the Huskies are grounded in smart high school recruiting and good retention.

Adama Sanogo has developed into one of the nation’s best big men. Guard Jordan Hawkins, if he decides to go pro, is a projected first-round draft pick. The Huskies have depth, size and length. They can play fast or slow. They have sufficient shooting to complement their post play, and their recruiting classes are so balanced they have built-in leadership and stability even after factoring in inevitable roster turnover.

“I’m proud of how we’ve gotten here,” Hurley said. “This was pre-portal. It was pre-NIL. Back then, you had to develop a culture, develop young players. A recruit had to believe in your vision. You couldn’t necessarily purchase it.

“We built the program. And we still continue to do it the same way.”

It would be foolish to guarantee Connecticut will be as consistently dominant as it once was. It’s hard to say that about any program now because there’s so much uncertainty and roster fluctuation throughout the sport. But Hurley is just 50, and even with a national title in sight, he shows few signs of satisfaction.

“He demands more out of his players than, I think, anybody in the country,” guard Andre Jackson Jr. said.

It will serve him well the next time Connecticut’s long-term viability is tested, if anyone dares to ask that question again.

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