UConn men’s basketball is in a unique spot. Programs with the Huskies’ level of prestige and success don’t play in such small conferences, and they rarely have to fight their way back to prominence. Admittedly, that makes it hard to find a relevant comparison, but here’s the closest I can find.
A mid-major team in a good recruiting area finds itself with back-to-back losing seasons for the first time in multiple decades. The program is otherwise well-regarded, and it’s still known for its string of NCAA Tournament success and an NBA superstar who took the team to an Elite Eight and a top-ten AP ranking.
But then comes the losing, and it becomes clear that the coach they hired (after the departure of the school’s all-time coaching wins leader) wasn’t getting the job done. The school decides to hire a young, exciting coach from a mid-major in the northeast that just made a deep NCAA Tournament run of its own.
The new coach turns the program into one of the most prominent teams in the nation, but first goes through a 21-15 season with a modest 10-6 record in a weak year for the conference (which, it should be said, was much worse than the AAC).
If you haven’t figured it out, the coach in question is John Calipari, and the school is AAC rival Memphis. Of course, Dan Hurley probably isn’t the next Calipari, and incoming recruit Akok Akok probably isn’t the next Shawne Williams (here’s your reminder that a consensus top-10 recruit didn’t sign with Memphis until Calipari’s eighth year there). But UConn also has things in its favor that Memphis didn’t—the history, the location, the prestige, and the NBA connections, to name a few.
For many reasons, Hurley doesn’t have to follow in Calipari’s footsteps to bring UConn back to prominence. However, it was never going to happen overnight, and the bumps in the road—such as UConn’s two straight losses to USF and UCF (please don’t schedule North Florida, that could end poorly)—were to be expected. Two straight losing seasons isn’t something that happens by accident, and rebuilding a program takes time.
None of the great coaches in recent history have ever turned around a program in just one year. Mike Krzyzewski inherited an Elite Eight team at Duke and went below .500 for his first three seasons. Tom Izzo missed the NCAA Tournament his first two years at Michigan State. Jim Calhoun won nine games in his first season at UConn—and that was with Cliff Robinson and Tate George already on the team.
I don’t think anybody expected UConn to turn itself around just by hiring Hurley, and I can understand why the Syracuse win energized the fanbase into thinking that they might already be back. The 0-2 start to conference play, though, is a growing pain they have to endure.
The current roster still has too many bad habits instilled in them from playing under a system that simply did not work. Attrition and experience running Hurley’s faster, more open style will only benefit the team in the long run.
Of course, Hurley will also want “his guys” on the team, and his first true recruiting class is looking good already. James Bouknight has been shooting up the Class of 2019 rankings, Akok Akok is the type of player that Calhoun loved to recruit, and UConn is still in play for a handful of more high-level recruits, including making the final five for consensus top-ten recruit Precious Achiuwa. Given that the Huskies haven’t legitimately been in play for a consensus top-ten recruit in several years, this is a sign things are on the upswing.
The little things are going to matter a lot this year; there might not be anything to look forward to this season except each individual game. But it would benefit UConn fans to look at the big picture, and what it takes to rebuild the program in the ground up. Losing to USF isn’t hurting UConn men’s basketball any more than beating the Bulls would have helped them.
Sure, you could say there’s nowhere to go but up, so anything would look better. But if you’re making a checklist of what Hurley would need to do in order to successfully rebuild the program, it’d probably look something like this:
- Restock the team with young, talented recruits
- Oversee a change in the team’s identity
- Promote more effective on-court strategies
- Earn the respect of the players who stayed with the program
Which of those is Hurley not currently doing, or already done? These things take time, and it’s hard to get a sub-.500 team to play like a great one. But with time, and given multiple years, Hurley is on track to get the Huskies back to winning basketball. Right now, being on the track is good enough.