UConn means something. This is how Dan Hurley made it matter again

STORRS, Conn. — People of a certain age speak of UConn basketball a certain way. The great UConn teams of the 1990s and early 2000s were their own thing, shouldering their way onstage with bluebloods and winning national titles at a rate they couldn’t keep up with. Tom Wolfe once wrote that the Beatles want to hold your hand, but the Rolling Stones want to burn down your town. That’s basically UConn hoops. Programs like Duke, North Carolina, Kansas and Michigan State have their little Champions Classic. But the Huskies’ four national titles since 1999 outpace ’em all.

Dan Hurley is most definitely of a certain age and of a certain bend. He turns 50 next week. He’s from the Northeast, born to a world where Big East basketball was sovereign. Georgetown, Syracuse, St. John’s, Seton Hall and Villanova reigned. That is, until Jim Calhoun showed up out of nowhere, dragging a former agricultural college from the backwoods of Connecticut into the fray.

Hurley speaks of UConn’s young ghosts like a lot of us do.

“I mean, Donyell? Ray? Rip? C’mon, man,” he says.

Today, Hurley can comfortably revisit the past because his current team looks the part. The Huskies are 15-2, back in the top 10, back in the Big East championship mix, and it feels right. That last part may sound abstract, but it’s true. Two recent road trips to Xavier and rival Providence amounted to certifiably big games for the home teams. In turn, UConn found out what it means to be “back.” They were dealt both teams’ best shots and fell in back-to-back losses. Winning on the road ain’t easy in the Big East, especially when you’re the top target.

It’s been a long time since UConn could say that. But this is what restorations look like. Shave it down to the splinters. Then bring it back.

Two weeks ago, Villanova visited for a game at XL Center, the aging concrete bowl in downtown Hartford where UConn is required by the state to play nine games a year. During that day’s afternoon shootaround, Hurley reminded his Huskies that ’Nova has ruled the Big East for most of the last decade and still carries championship DNA. “Beat it out of them,” he said. The whole scene, to any college hoops purist, was unmistakably romantic.

Later that night, the streets around XL Center buzzed. Crowds stuffed into bar doorways hours before tipoff. A line formed outside Rocking Horse Saloon. At The Tavern Downtown, a distressed manager near the host stand blurted: “Haven’t seen it like this in years!” The Huskies did their part, out-toughing Villanova, winning in a slog, and improving to 14-0. A sold-out crowd cheered, then refilled the barstools at Rocking Horse and The Tavern, and everywhere else with a row of draft handles.

In Connecticut, what’s good for UConn is good for everyone.

It was all very different last year. UConn beat Villanova at XL Center in February 2022, and students rushed the court. The Wildcats were good (they eventually reached the Final Four), but on that day were only ranked No. 8 in the AP poll and fell to 21-7. For a program of Connecticut’s stature, the celebration was … unbecoming. “Afterward, we were all kinda like, man, really, they’re storming the court?” remembers assistant coach Luke Murray.

But let’s look at it from the students’ perspective, no? They are not of a certain age. They’ve never heard of the 1989-90 “Dream Season.” They weren’t born when Donyell Marshall or Ray Allen or Rip Hamilton played. They didn’t see the ’99 championship. They were toddlers when Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon did their thing in 2004. They were in middle school when Kemba Walker penned the 2011 storybook. They weren’t yet in high school when coach Kevin Ollie and star Shabazz Napier cut down nets in 2014.

A lot of that might feel recent. But it’s not. Not really, at least.

For those students, last year’s victory over Villanova was the program’s first top-10 win in eight years.

“Now that I think of it,” says Jordan Hawkins, a UConn sophomore and the Huskies’ second-leading scorer, “my dad was more excited when I got the UConn (scholarship) offer than I was. To him, UConn was like the Dukes and the North Carolinas. I didn’t know all that.”

From the 2014 championship through the 2019-20 season, once-mighty UConn posted a 110-90 record with one NCAA Tournament appearance. It got tagged with NCAA sanctions. It languished through an intense, messy divorce with one of its own (Kevin Ollie, ’95). It wandered an island of misfit toys, playing a string of ridiculous seasons in the mishmash American Athletic Conference. It hired Hurley in 2018, pinning the future to a 45-year-old with an eminent last name, but a questionable bedside manner. It wisely returned to the Big East in 2020 (sending its football program, instead, into the abyss of independent FBS status), and a gradual return to basketball relevance followed. Hurley brought the Huskies to the 2021 NCAA Tournament as a No. 7 seed, then to the 2022 NCAA Tournament as a 5 seed.

Now it’s 2023.

UConn arrived at New Year’s Eve at 14-0 and ranked No. 2 nationally before falling at Xavier. Afterward, coach Sean Miller, a Big East player at Pittsburgh in the 1980s, called it a huge win for his Muskies and said: “Every conference needs heavyweights. UConn, to their credit, has become a college basketball heavyweight. It helps everybody. And when you’re in a league with them — look, they’re going to get everybody’s best shot right now because of how good they are.”

On one hand, UConn’s return to our collective consciousness feels like a continuation of what was. On the other hand, it’s entirely different. What goes unspoken in all this is the underlying reality that no program is immune to atrophy. Lots of programs have reached altitudes they didn’t know existed, only to return to land, never to be seen or heard from again. Getting back is so hard.

UConn, though? As of now, it’s back. And that means something. But now comes the hard part.

Adama Sanogo is generating All-American buzz with a standout season in the middle for UConn. (Soobum Im / Getty Images)

Hurley’s office comes with a view. From the second floor of UConn’s posh basketball practice facility, he looks out over the Huskies’ practice court. The wall running the length of the floor is adorned with banners of the program’s 14 NBA lottery picks dating to Marshall. Each one, a full-length picture. On the far wall, four massive national championship banners stare straight back at the office.

Next door, Geno Auriemma and the UConn women’s program enjoy an identical setup, but with seven additional national title banners.

“It isn’t hard to understand expectations here,” Hurley says.

Hurley was hired five years ago this March, arriving on a path paved by a personal basketball history.

He spent his early years as a kid sitting in a heap of winter jackets along the baseline at White Eagle Hall in Jersey City, N.J., watching his father, Bob Hurley Sr., mold cash-strapped St. Anthony High into an improbable national power. He spent his high school and college years chasing his older brother Bobby’s shadow. Separated by only 18 months, Danny and Bobby were interconnected, but Bobby’s success — four consecutive Parochial B state titles, McDonald’s All-American status, two national titles at Duke, chosen in the first round of the NBA Draft — was impossible to follow. Dan was a great player for his father at St. Anthony, but he wasn’t Bobby. So when it came time for college, he declined a scholarship from Duke, opting for Seton Hall. His 1,000-point college career was solid, but eclipsed by enormous expectations.

Next came coaching. With a name carrying weight in North Jersey, Hurley was hired as an assistant at Rutgers. Four years later, following Kevin Bannon’s disastrous end there, Hurley followed his heart to the high school ranks, filling an opening as varsity coach and American history teacher at St. Benedict’s Prep, a private, all-boy school in Newark. He went 223-21 in nine seasons, turning the school into a national power.

Then back to college. Two years as Wagner’s head coach, going 38-23. Six years at Rhode Island, going 113-82 with two NCAA Tournament appearances.

When the UConn job opened, Hurley was an obvious candidate. He was 50 miles away in Kingston, R.I., and had some indirect ties to the program. At Seton Hall, Hurley played for George Blaney, a longtime associate head coach to Jim Calhoun at UConn. Tom Moore, another former UConn assistant under Calhoun, was on Hurley’s staff at Rhode Island. Perhaps more importantly than any of that, he reminded the locals of a certain irreverent, loose-collar coach of yesteryear.

Other names were floated. Maybe Calhoun might return as head coach. Maybe Thad Matta. Possibly Tom Crean. UConn athletic director David Benedict didn’t overthink things. He hired Hurley. Calhoun delivered a full endorsement. Hurley, in turn, did his part, both declining a competing offer from Pitt (to replace Kevin Stallings) and making a harder-than-you-might-think decision to leave Rhode Island.

The turnaround at UConn required two things — a force of personality and talent. Hurley had one and could recruit the other, but it would take time. The early days were rough. Hurley wanted to reach up to those banners and cover their eyes. “Kemba shouldn’t have to see this.” He went 16-17 overall and 6-12 in the AAC in Year 1. He had the UConn job, but didn’t feel like he was coaching UConn.

“Waking up in weird places, weird states,” Hurley remembers. “Not exactly rivalry matchups like Providence and Villanova. We were in Tulsa, Okla.”

That changed with the return to the Big East after Hurley’s second season on the job. Back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances followed.

This past offseason, though, amounted to an inflection point for the program. Coming off an NCAA loss to 12th-seeded New Mexico State, UConn had to ask itself what was required to bring the program to the next level. It was 0-2 in the NCAA Tournament with a peak ranking of No. 15 in the AP poll under Hurley. That’s not bad, but it’s not good enough. Not with those banners staring back at you, it isn’t.

Days after the New Mexico State loss, a meeting was called. The only invites: Jordan Hawkins, Adama Sanogo and Andre Jackson Jr. That’s it. The three of them, plus Hurley, gathered in the office.

Hurley went right down the line.

He pointed at Hawkins: “You’re going to be one of the best shooters and scorers in the country next season.”

Pointed at Jackson: “You’re going to be one of the most dynamic playmakers in the country.”

At Sanogo: “And you’re going to be the preseason Big East Player of the Year.”

“All right?”

The three nodded. Hawkins was a rising sophomore guard poised for a breakout season. Jackson was a rising junior do-it-all guard/wing/forward/whatever. Sanogo, the centerpiece, was a dominant rising junior big man.

Hurley told the trio he was going to tap the transfer portal, add some needed talent around them, but that this was to be their team. They were the core. They were going to turn UConn into a winner not for Hurley, but with Hurley.

“He was going to build a team to fit our style of play,” Jackson says. “He told us there were other returning parts he was going to rely on, but that we needed to lead them. He gave us the responsibility. It was a little daunting, but it was the opportunity to make this a player-led team, instead of it being all about him.

“I think that’s where this all started.”

Jordan Hawkins, right, was the No. 51 prospect in the Class of 2021. (David Butler II / USA Today)

The winding, single-lane roads leading to Storrs seem to go nowhere. Craig Hawkins was delighted. Driving along, he could feel his son, Jordan, looking around, bewildered.

“Like, yo, where am I?” Jordan remembers. “What did I get myself into? I was really confused because I didn’t see any McDonald’s.”

It was the day after Jordan’s graduation from DeMatha Catholic High. Father was dropping son off at college. Jordan, a self-described “COVID kid,” had never visited Connecticut; his recruitment was conducted entirely over Zoom.

The 6-foot-5 guard grew up outside Washington, D.C., but didn’t draw interest from the region’s powerhouse private schools until after breaking out as a sophomore at his local public school. He then landed at DeMatha as a junior and blossomed into a top-50 recruit. The type of chances his father never had.

Craig grew up in the same place about two decades earlier. He was raised by his mother and grew up  to be a nice player, good enough to have Division I scholarship offers from Minnesota, Delaware and some others. Before he could decide where to go, though, he got locked up. That was the end of that. “No school wanted to touch me,” he says. “I definitely missed my blessing.”

In truth, perhaps Craig simply passed it along. Jordan ended up being recruited by the likes of Louisville, Marquette, Maryland, Xavier and others. But Connecticut? That was different. Craig grew up watching Big East basketball. To him, UConn is UConn, and old-school high school coaches like Morgan Wootten at DeMatha and Bob Hurley Sr. are royalty. So when the offer came from UConn and Hurley, Craig educated his son on who he was dealing with.

“I know how these Hurley boys are,” Craig Hawkins says, as if Dan and Bobby have spent their years evading Boss Hogg, “because I know how they were raised. I knew the mental toughness that Jordan needed — I knew Danny could give that to him. I wanted someone to be a father figure, as much as a coach.”

Today, Jordan Hawkins is immersed in the UConn ecosystem. After a strong freshman season, he spent much of last summer working out in Los Angeles. He logged hours with Richard Hamilton, learning methods for coming off pin-downs and staggers. How to get open. How to shake a chaser on defense. Making reads off screens.

Hawkins is UConn’s second-leading scorer, averaging about 15 points on 39 percent 3-point shooting.

This is how it’s supposed to work. This is the reputation UConn can carry, one that’s uniquely its own. And this is how the egg is cracked to create the type of UConn guards that end up on banners in the practice facility. The other component, however, is everyone else. That’s where the winning comes, and that’s what makes this UConn team tick.

“I think one thing that we were missing last year,” Jordan Hawkins says, “is a strength this year — the camaraderie and the joy we have playing with each other is really special.”

Andre Jackson Jr., for instance, could’ve seen this season as his turn to be UConn’s No. 2 scorer. He averaged seven points, seven rebounds and three assists as a sophomore. As a junior, perhaps he’d demand buckets, show NBA scouts he can score. After all, Hawkins only averaged six points per game as a freshman. He could wait his turn.

But that’s not who Andre Jackson is. Raised in tiny Amsterdam, N.Y., he was taught basketball by a local pastor and grew up watching Pistol Pete Maravich dribbling drills on YouTube. The result: a 6-foot-6 ballhanding impresario who sees the game on a painter’s pallet. That play matches his background. Wonderfully told last March by writer Mike Anthony, Jackson is a product of both a sprawling New York Italian family of boxers and mixed martial artists, and a large, Southern, deeply religious Black family in Richmond, Va. During a recent conversation, he sat hunched forward, listening to every question, thinking about his team, his path, his place. He says he’s a byproduct of his background.

UConn is the benefactor. As Hawkins puts it, Jackson is “the leader, our heartbeat — the most unselfish guy you’ll ever meet.”

So, no, Jackson has no issue deferring to Hawkins. Jackson gets his when it’s available, in between ripping rebounds, streaking back on defense to block shots and shutting down opposing top scorers.

“A lot of people expected me to be one- or two-and-done, an NBA Draft pick, maybe a lottery pick,” Jackson says. “But that’s not really what my purpose was here. Yes, I want to get (to the NBA), but I told Coach Hurley: I’ll stay four years, I’ll do whatever is needed, I just want to play, I want to win. You don’t come to UConn and see those banners on the wall — 11 on that side, four on this side — and say, oh, I’ll go there for a year or two and get mine. You might as well go somewhere else. This is a championship program.”

In the middle of all this is Sanogo, the 6-foot-9, 245-pound center from Bamako, the capital city of Mali. He first played basketball at age 12 and departed for the U.S. three years later. In the states, he began high school in Long Island, turning into a national prospect and transferring to The Patrick School in Hillside, N.J. Looking to help provide for his family back home, there was a gravity to Sanogo’s college recruitment.

“He told us straight up, this is what I came here to do, this is all I have,” UConn assistant Kimani Young says.

Arriving in Storrs in 2020, Sanogo walked in the door and took over for Josh Carlton, a two-year starter who later transferred and started for Houston’s 2022 Elite Eight team.

“(Sanogo) literally came in here and kicked Josh’s butt every single day,” Young says. “None of us had ever seen anything like that. He earned the job.”

Now Sanogo is one of the known commodities of college basketball. A force. He leads UConn with 18 points and seven boards per game. Opponents concoct their defensive schemes around him. Last week, Villanova deployed two defenders on him when he didn’t have the ball. He draws double teams with and without the ball.

“Adama is our balance,” Jackson says.

Sanogo is shooting 77 percent at both the rim and the free-throw line. Tough to stop. Behind him is freshman Donovan Clingan, the Huskies’ next great center. He’s even bigger, a 7-2, 265-pound phone booth. The Bristol, Conn., native is putting up a Zach Edey-esque 25 points and 18 rebounds per-40 minutes played. While Sanogo has a deep bag of low-post tricks, Clingan is more of a lob finisher and offensive rebounder. He’s shooting 74 percent at the rim. Also tough to stop. The only issue is how to get him on the floor more, a good problem to have, in theory.

This is UConn’s construct. Post play, shooting and high-IQ passing. A lot of Hurley’s old teams were ball-screen-centric. The determination was made early that this group would go another way. Screens for shooters and a variety of sets to open avenues for post passes. Then, on misses, destroy the offensive glass.

Around these primary pieces, Hurley blended talented four-man Alex Karaban, a freshman who ranked outside the top 100 in the recruiting rankings, along with a wave of transfers: point guard Tristen Newton from ECU, shooter Joey Calcaterra from San Diego, guard Hassan Diarra, a menace from Texas A&M, and Virginia Tech transfer guard Nahiem Alleyne. Sophomore forward Samson Johnson has pro upside, but has spent the season dealing with a foot injury. He’s slated to return in roughly two weeks, bringing some needed defense and rebounding.

Add it up. UConn is good. UConn is deep. UConn is one of only two teams in the country ranked in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency.

Now all UConn needs to do is be UConn.

Dan Hurley’s temper can sometimes get the better of him but players also relate to his fiery personality. (David Butler II / USA Today)

The 14-0 start prompted requisite reactions. UConn went from unranked in the preseason to being talked about as the best team in America. No in-between. “I heard we were the Noah’s Ark team,” Hurley says. “Two of everything!” Then, two straight losses. Snap. Narrative change. Voices wondering if UConn is vulnerable, questioning its point guard play, its offensive schemes, its toughness.

In reality, road games against top-30 Kenpom opponents are usually pretty hard to win. They’re harder, still, when wearing a Connecticut jersey, carrying a top-five ranking and coached by a conference villain. Beating UConn is, once again, a win that matters. Opposing fans have long loved to hate UConn. This year’s contours are that of a reborn ritual.

“It’s different than last year or anything that any of us have experienced, myself included,” Hurley says. “At a place like this, it’s exacerbated. It’s the combination of the UConn brand and its history. Apparently, from a social media standpoint, too, our fan base is very — well, I think because of the championships, when we win, from what I’m told, the fans are out there, like, mocking other teams. So, you add that, plus the hatred other programs have for me, because of how hard I coach. And, you know … ”

It’s combustible.

“But this is what we signed up for,” Jackson says.

To be clear, even as one of only two teams nationally (along with Houston) with both a top-10 offensive and defensive rating on analytics site KenPom.com, this team is not without flaws. The point guard position is, let’s say, limited. If dissecting the Huskies, you wonder if Hurley will eventually have to lean more heavily on Jackson as a lead guard as opposed to a playmaker. The team is also light at the four position. It needs more athleticism defensively and on the boards. Maybe that comes with Samson Johnson’s eventual return. Either way, UConn has to reidentify some core values. Being outrebounded 49-34 by Creighton — even in a win — is unacceptable. So, too, is repeatedly being on the wrong end of fouls drawn on the final box score.

And then there’s Hurley.

Following a recent practice in Hartford, he walked over to chat for a moment. Funny, chill, personable. Not the guy you see on TV. Then, heading back to rejoin his team, he put on sunglasses, a hat and pulled his hood up atop his head. Looked like the basketball Unabomber. “I’m one-part European soccer manager and one-part Dutton Ranch farmhand,” he said. We still have no idea what that means, but Hurley is undoubtedly a man of multiple identities.

That, too, can be combustible.

Hurley’s rep is well-earned. He coaches — games, practices, whatever — like a human Vesuvius. Spitting fire. A torrent of facial expressions. He likes to say he’s ready to cool down, but that might require a lobotomy. He is who he is, just like his brother, and Big East officials are low on tolerance. Hurley nearly drew a technical foul against Villanova, repeatedly calling a referee a “clown.” Then he got one at Xavier, rung up with 2:25 left to go in a one-possession game. This sideline act is a constant conversation. He gets more TV time than some of his players.

More than a few onlookers wonder how he might handle coaching a Sweet 16 game, an Elite Eight game.

At the same time, Hurley connects with his players, wielding the kind of tough love favored by those enrolled in the old school. It shows on and off the court. His guys run through walls. He has a top-five recruiting class coming in next year.

This is Hurley in all his parts.

In turn, this is the UConn of 2023, in all of its parts.

Combustible, indeed. In a good way? Bad way? Who knows, but it’s all a little intoxicating. In trying to dust off its embalmed era, the UConn of today is growing more and more similar to the days of old.

Back in 1996-97, in a season going awry, spiraling with 10 losses in 13 games down the stretch, Jim Calhoun called three players into his office — Richard Hamilton, Kevin Freeman and Jake Voskuhl. He told the trio he wanted to “empower them.” It was their team, and they needed to take it.

“Between Jim and those three,” remembers Tom Moore, the assistant, “it almost became like the four of them together.”

That ’96-97 team ended up going on a run in the NIT Final Four. The next season, the three were joined by some reinforcements, namely Khalid El-Amin, and reached the Elite Eight.

The next season, UConn won a national championship.

Symmetry? We’ll see. For now, UConn will continue to do things its own way. During a recent practice, Hurley began a Friday practice by lining up his team for some time-honored ballhandling drills, the kind of stuff that used to reverberate around White Eagle Hall. UConn players whirled the ball around one leg, then another. Behind-the-back dribbles. Between the legs. “Faster!” Hurley yelled. Two balls at once. Pounding. “Louder!” he demanded.

The Huskies responded. The noise echoed.

Enough to stir the banners.

(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; photos: Justin Casterline / Getty Images)


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