The ink has dried on Dan Hurley’s new contract with UConn. With it, the New Jersey native gets a large raise, the keys to a much stronger program with better facilities, and the weight of millions of self-hating New Englanders’ lofty, almost certainly unrealistic expectations.
His predecessor Kevin Ollie began with lower expectations, because nobody knew what to expect from the situation he inherited. There was a 2013 postseason ban looming, a move to a lesser conference, and a rash of transfers from the program. Even though Jim Calhoun and the fanbase believed in KO, nobody knew when, or if, he’d be able to get the team to prominence.
Ollie’s expectations skyrocketed when he won 20 games in his first season and a national championship in his next one. From there, the assumption was that the gravy train would keep rolling and the Husky program was well-positioned for continued and prolonged success.
How wrong we were.
Anyway, the time came to move on from Ollie, sadly, and his successor inherits a much different—not necessarily better or worse—situation.
UConn is now solidly in the AAC, and while the conference situation isn’t great, we do have a few years of data now on what the league is like, who the major players are, and how to succeed in it. Unfortunately, UConn was not one of those major players, as most Husky fans assumed would happen. Fixing that should be Hurley’s initial goal.
Obviously being a national championship contender is awesome, but given the unfortunate place that UConn is in right now, in the medium-term, Hurley needs to get to a place where he’s solidly in the top tier of the American every year.
While there has been a lot of talk about the challenges of garnering fan interest in the much-less-cool-than-the-original-Big-East conference, if UConn’s a consistent winner, attendance, viewership, merch sales, etc. will be just fine. I believe the games’ lack of stakes, mostly due to UConn’s crappiness over the past two years, has done more to kill fan interest than playing teams we don’t care as much about.
Hurley needs to figure out how to beat Cincinnati, Wichita State, and SMU. Say what you want about the conference but those teams have been solid and we have plenty of reasons to want to beat them. There’s a shared history with UC, some good back-and-forth over the past few years with SMU, and primetime opportunities afforded by playing a perennially strong Wichita State team.
Compared to 2012, we now know much more about what to expect from the conference. In addition to those teams on top, there’s an improving middle class, where UCF, Houston, and Temple are doing pretty well for themselves. UConn wasn’t beating those teams enough. While everyone believed UConn, the established and rising national power, would lead the conference, the Huskies have been unimpressively middle of the pack in AAC play over the past few years. That needs to change.
Long term, the expectation is of course championships, or at least to be good enough on a regular basis to compete for them.
Can they do it?
“It’s doable,” a young head coach once famously said after he took over at UConn, but that was a long time ago—a different story in a different time.
First things first. Hurley needs to figure out a) which players on the roster he wants to keep and b) which ones want to stay. He has at least one roster spot to fill, and may have more, but assuming no major losses, and if Jalen Adams decides not to go pro, this could be a solid team next year. I don’t even really want to go there, but if Alterique Gilbert plays a full season it could be a really good team.
All we really need to see in Hurley’s first year though is change in the right direction. UConn was really, really bad last year and even though the assembled talent wasn’t awesome, it’s clearly capable of better than what we saw. There’s enough running room just with the possibility of improving on-court strategy that we should feel comfortable expecting a winning record and a top-half AAC finish.
Beyond that... hopefully we’ve learned not to take anything for granted or think too far ahead, but yeah definitely get your fifth championship hashtag ready.