Emotions were high in the 2018 offseason following the hiring of Dan Hurley as UConn men’s basketball’s next head coach. The departing Kevin Ollie had helmed the Huskies to two straight losing seasons, while Hurley was an up-and-comer from a regional school that had seen a lot of success, winning two NCAA tournament games in that span, including a win over Trae Young and Oklahoma.
The results of that hiring have been unclear so far. We can definitively state that Hurley’s processes of development and team-building are a major improvement over his predecessor’s, but if it doesn’t lead to an improved stature of the team, it doesn’t matter. The Huskies suffered their third consecutive losing season, falling to 16-17 on the season.
Much of that record was outside Hurley’s control, of course—he didn’t build the roster, he didn’t have much time to develop the players, and the Huskies were beset by an atypically high number of injuries to key players. This review of Hurley’s first year isn’t meant to just exonerate him, but it can’t be fairly written without mentioning that several factors into UConn’s overall record were unaffected by Hurley’s presence.
At the same time, the record is the record, and coaching is involved in its determination. Thankfully, when looking closer at the games, it’s clear Hurley contributed more directly to the wins than the losses, which is one of several causes for optimism in the coming years. Included among the positives were:
- Hurley installed a productive offensive system that allowed the team to score regularly in transition and that played to the strengths of the three lead guards and a much-improved center.
- He oversaw major improvements in Alterique Gilbert, Josh Carlton, and Tyler Polley, and helped newcomers such as Tarin Smith and Brendan Adams get incorporated with the team quickly.
- Even with a shorthanded roster (even before injuries to Gilbert and Jalen Adams, the team was limited with suspensions and players who weren’t able to contribute), led Huskies to a 15-10 record when Adams was healthy, and a 12-8 record when both Adams and Gilbert were healthy. Before this season, the Huskies went only 5-4 in games that Gilbert played in.
Of course, nobody is perfect, and a few negatives about Hurley’s first year stood out as well. Thankfully, the positives far outweighed their counterparts, but certain aspects of his early tenure must also be mentioned. Those included:
- Though this issue was exacerbated (if not outright caused) by roster limitations, Hurley often failed to realize when certain things weren’t working, particularly in lineups. After the injuries to Adams and/or Gilbert, Hurley’s lineups got far more rigid and traditional, and the team struggled as a result. In the future, he must continue to be creative even when forced into an unfavorable situation, because it’s clear that even the backups on this team were better off in different roles than they were often deployed in.
- While the offense showed immense growth, the defense took a step back overall. The defensive play of Gilbert and Christian Vital masked a lot of the regressions, as did Carlton’s improvement as a shot-blocker; the perimeter defense was only as good as its individuals and showed little cohesion as a team unit, and Carlton relied too much on his newfound skill as a shot-blocker, failing to anticipate and be a team leader as a player that should have been the defensive centerpiece. If Hurley makes it a priority, this can be completely turned around next year, and by December 2019 we may all be wondering whether defense was ever a problem at all.
- The team fouled constantly. Personally speaking, I’ve been very vocally critical about the amount of touch fouls being called in AAC play, as well as how often AAC referees blow the whistle (no basketball game should have more fouls than minutes played!), but UConn still fouled way too frequently for a team more athletic than a lot of its rivals. That must change next season.
Perhaps I’m being overly optimistic, but I was more impressed with the growth than worried about the setbacks that Dan Hurley showed in his first year. While a 16-17 season obviously fell short of the team’s goals, the Huskies have shown a lot of potential for further success. Players are finally showing real improvement, the program’s recruiting seems to be on the right track, and Hurley is already establishing an identity for the team. Those are the building blocks that UConn needs to regain its status as a premier team in college basketball, and in just one year, Hurley has done enough to make sure the Huskies are well down the path to rebuilding.