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UConn men’s basketball season in review: Year two under Dan Hurley

UConn’s rebuild continues as Hurley’s second year comes to a close. Here’s where it stands so far.

Dan Hurley Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

One of the biggest reasons UConn hired Dan Hurley was because of his reputation for turning around programs. Wagner went 13-17 in Hurley’s first year with the Seahawks, and 25-6 in his second. Rhode Island was an eight-win team in Hurley’s first year helming the Rams, and won 23 games in his third year. Even UConn was below .500 in Hurley’s first season in Storrs. The Huskies would not be below .500 in Hurley’s second year.

The 2019-2020 season may have been cut short, but the Huskies were on pace to reach 20 wins, which would have been the marker of a successful turnaround, especially after three-straight losing seasons. The Huskies were outside the bubble, but had a chance to play their way into it, which is all you can ask for in a season where two important starters are injured for the year.

At this point, I don’t think anyone can question that Hurley’s rebuild has hit all the benchmarks it needed to so far. While the NCAA Tournament may not have been UConn’s ultimate fate this year (although we’ll never know, so feel free to pretend we won it all by beating Duke by 100 points in the final game and forcing Coach K into an early retirement and/or jail), the Huskies were in play to enter the tournament at any time.

I wrote a review of Hurley’s first season around this time last year, and can recap my observations from 2019 thusly: Hurley mitigated last year’s negatives as much as possible, and used the strengths to continue to build the team.

As individuals, the team has undergone massive improvement (hello, newly-amazing Isaiah Whaley), the offense has shown itself to be even more productive as a result of player development, and Hurley’s teams found a way to win, even getting better, after the injuries to Tyler Polley and Akok Akok.

Meanwhile, Hurley’s injury-shortened rotations got a lot less rigid this season (which was aided by a more versatile roster, although Hurley had some hand in making this happen), the defense looked a lot better than last season, and they cut down on the fouls even with a AAC officiating corps that made it a point to call weak fouls against UConn this year, and I’m only half-joking about this. But, all of my concerns from last year just aren’t concerns anymore; they were apparently only temporary issues.

That doesn’t mean that everything is going to be peachy moving forward, but Hurley has the team in a good place. He’ll have to maintain the standard he’s set so far, but from on-court play (52nd in Ken Pomeroy’s Adjusted Efficiency Margin, up from 98th in 2018-19, and 179th [!!!] the season before that) to building an effective roster, Hurley has the Huskies on the upswing.

Let’s also keep in mind that he still hasn’t been able to coach a season with a full roster. Due to injuries, suspensions, and ineffectiveness, the Huskies were down to seven scholarship athletes in many games last season, and a combination of those factors gave the Huskies only eight for most of the conference season in 2020. In 2020-21, the Huskies get a scholarship back, take Richie Springs and R.J. Cole off their redshirts, and (with luck) won’t lose two starters to injury again. Add Andre Jackson and Javonte-Brown Ferguson, plus whoever fills the empty spot left by Alterique Gilbert transferring, and the Huskies will have what looks like a full roster for the first time in a while.

Optimism has to be earned, but Hurley has built it up. A lot of talent will remain in Storrs, and much of it young players who will remain on the team beyond this season. All Hurley needed to provide in year two was more wins and excitement among players to build a better recruiting pipeline. He’s accomplished both so far.