One of the most exciting, if not worrying, parts of bringing in a new coach is wondering what changes he’ll bring to the team. That’s where UConn fans sit right now with Dan Hurley, and although the consensus reaction among the Huskies faithful is one of excitement, plenty of questions still remain about how the team will look next season.
Thankfully, there are plenty of reasons for optimism. Most notably, Hurley has a history of turning around teams following disappointing seasons. It helps, of course, that UConn has plenty of young talent coming back next season, not to mention two of its top three scorers.
So it’s fair to expect a much better upcoming season than the 14-18 campaign UConn just suffered. But that has more to do with the coach’s record of success and the talent on the roster than it does the coach’s strategies itself. So how does UConn get there?
After looking back at game tape from Hurley’s successful seasons at Rhode Island, some patterns emerged that showed how his Huskies might look different from Kevin Ollie’s teams.
The most notable of these changes is in the lineups each coach runs. Hurley is not afraid to play small lineups; his starters this past season were four guards (none of whom were over 6’5”) and a center, and the first player off the bench was also an undersized perimeter player. By comparison, Ollie’s teams were often very rigid in their construction. Apart from Terry Larrier occasionally switching from a perimeter role to a stretch power forward role, the roles of UConn players were very defined and, too often, very old-fashioned. Hurley’s teams are different, more suited to the era of positional revolution, and have found success as a result of these differences.
And while you might think this perimeter-oriented lineup is designed to increase three-point attempts—because that’s typically the case in four-guard lineups—that’s never been the focal point of Hurley’s offenses. The spacing led to higher-quality opportunities from three, but not necessarily more of them; the Rams’ three-point attempts haven’t cracked the top 200 in the nation in any season since Hurley arrived. That’s because the focal point of Hurley’s offense is ball penetration and inside passing. Only fifteen teams took more shots from inside the arc than Rhode Island last season, and that’s with undersized lineups.
It’s no knock on the Rams to say that UConn might have a bit more talent, and the possibilities of what Hurley could do with this team are intriguing. Jalen Adams is certainly built for a drive-and-dish role in the offense, Christian Vital’s shooting should improve even further when he can get better looks from three, and Alterique Gilbert seems to be a much better fit as a distributor than a scorer while he recovers from his latest injury.
We’ve seen progress with the forwards too; Isaiah Whaley and Mamadou Diarra are both quick big men who are slowly developing their scoring touches—one of the hallmarks of the Hurley offense is a screen that sets up a jumper for the center from the free throw line—and Josh Carlton is exactly the type of center Hurley is used to, with good touch around the rim and high-level skill on the offensive glass. (Oh yeah, Rhode Island was a great offensive rebounding team last season.)
Hurley’s defense also prioritizes something that might energize both the Huskies and their fans next season: creating turnovers. The Rams’ opponents turned the ball over 536 times last season, 13th most in the country. It’s an active defensive system, with a lot of switches and double-teams, but everything is purposeful and every risk is calculated. On the other side of the ball, Rhode Island has been very smart with the ball, ending last year with the 18th-best offensive turnover rate in the country, per KenPom.
At UConn, the defense will probably need to be less extreme at its poles when translating Hurley’s system to a stronger conference, but his priorities on both ends of the floor show an innate understanding of the way basketball is played in 2018. He maximizes his team’s possessions with offensive rebounding and chasing turnovers; his defense forces teams to shoot the ball as far away from the rim as possible, and his all-five offensive strategies make sure someone will have an open shot on every possession.
For an incoming coach, that’s about as much as you could ask for. There will undoubtedly be some growing pains as the 2018-19 season starts, but Hurley’s game planning ability should have the Huskies back on the winning trail again.