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Dan Hurley reclaiming UConn’s backyard

The hungry coach and his staff are using UConn’s Big East return to lock down premier talent in the northeast.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

When UConn men’s basketball was establishing themselves in the old Big East, legend has it Jim Calhoun would hit every summer league in every small Connecticut town, leaving no stone unturned as he mined for homegrown talent. Calhoun knew in order for UConn to make a name for itself in a burgeoning Big East, the program would have to prioritize the recruitment of top local and regional players.

With UConn having recently restored its rightful place in the Big East, a similar hotheaded coach is following the same blueprint: reclaim your backyard.

“While I was considering whether I was gonna come to UConn or stay at Rhode Island, I was thinking deeply about what would be the approach in terms of putting a staff together, from a recruiting standpoint,” Hurley said. “You don’t just take a job and then figure it out. You say to yourself, ‘What would be my recruiting plan? Could I potentially execute it?’ We’ve got a New England guy, a New York/New Jersey guy and a guy who could (recruit) DMV (Washington D.C., Maryland and Virginia) and North Carolina for us. Those were places where the UConn brand would resonate most. That made sense.”

That quote from 2018 was music to fans’ ears even prior to rejoining the Big East. But now with UConn home, the excitement about recruitment has reached a fever pitch. And while you won’t catch Dan Hurley and company at Wolfe Park in Monroe, CT, anytime soon, the Carpenter has committed to making UConn the premier college destination of the northeast region (eastern PA and DE on up) once again.

This return on investment is already paying dividends with Jalen Gaffney (Pennsylvania) and James Bouknight (New York City) serving as the opening salvo of signings. More recent signings Andre Jackson (Rochester), Adama Sanogo (New Jersey), and now Ra’sool Diggins (Philly) all come from the backyards of Syracuse, Seton Hall, and Villanova, respectively, and are top 100 recruits. UConn’s 2020 recruiting class class is the 23rd ranked in the country, the highest ranked class in the Big East.

Of course, recruiting rankings are an imperfect science, and not every recruit can be a four or five star future pro. A top-100 Shabazz Napier is infinitely more appealing than a top-25 Brandon Knight or Corey Joseph that’s gone after one or two years. But the one constant should always be locking down as many local standouts as possible. No one from your backyard gets away, unless they want to.

Take a look at the notable Top-100 talent from the northeast between 2013-2018:

2013: Wayne Selden, Reggie Cameron

2014: Abdul Malik-Abu, Goodluck Okonoboh, Angel Delgado, Kaleb Joseph

2015: Jessie Govan, Donovan Mitchell

2016: Myles Powell, Bruce Brown

2017: Tremont Waters

2018: Jaiden Delaire

Hindsight is 2020, and it’s impossible to judge what’s going through an 18-year old kid’s mind. But how many of those players do you think would have given UConn a more serious look if the Huskies were in the Big East? The most successful of that group, Donovan Mitchell, didn’t even have UConn in his top five. Do you know who was? Villanova.

Here’s a breakdown of Rivals top-100 scholarship offers and commits during that time:

2014: Top 100s - 9; Offers - 3; Commits - 0

2015: Top 100s - 12; Offers - 7; Commits - 2 (#23 Jalen Adams and #58 Steven Enoch)

2016: Top 100s - 11, Offers - 1; Commits - 0

2017: Top 100s - 13; Offers - 6; Commits - 1 (#47 Makai Ashton-Langford, who decommited)

2018: Top 100s - 11; Offers - 7; Commits - 1 (Akok Akok, who reclassified)

2019: Top 100s - 12; Offers - 4; Commits - 1 (#84 James Bouknight)

2020: Top 100s - 11; Offers - 10; Commits - 2 (#71 Andre Jackson and #83 Adama Sanogo, who reclassified)

2021: Top 100s - 6; Offers - 3; Commits - 1 (#41 Rahsool Diggins)

Coach Hurley’s first class where he had a full recruiting period to work with was 2019. So in just three years, Hurley and company have reeled in four top-100 kids from the northeast region. That number grows to five if you count Akok Akok, who was a 2018 re-class and early enrollment. In comparison Kevin Ollie’s staff landed only three between 2014-2018, one of which decommited before arriving and another who transferred after two years.

Do with that information what you will. It’s not meant to bash the former coach’s efforts on the recruiting trail and its not to say that top-100 kids are the be-all and end-all to a successful program. It’s meant to serve as a reminder that conference affiliation plays an important role in locking down local talent.

When you combine a coaching staff that doesn’t lock down its own backyard with a conference that doesn’t appeal to a 18-year old kid, you’re going to take a step back on the recruiting trail. Imagine pairing Adams with high school teammate Donovan Mitchell, or Christian Vital and Tremont Waters locking you up the second you cross halfcourt. Just ask fellow Big East coaches.

“And this shift over to the Big East is really going to help, it’s going to give Danny a chance to show what he’s about as a coach.”

That’s Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard, who earlier in the year publicly admitted to using the AAC against UConn on the recruiting trail.

The lure of the Big East lure is not exclusive to UConn. Creighton, Xavier, and Butler all came in as heavyweights in 2013 from mid-major conferences. A look at their composite recruiting classes shows their best recruits of all-time have come in the last seven years.

No disrespect to our new conference pals, but UConn has the pedigree and location that will make them a factor for any regional kid that sets his sites on Storrs. The UConn Blog staff recently sat down with Rivals recruiting guru Corey Evans, who had this to say about UConn’s new recruiting normal;

“In the past 3-4 months with Sanogo, then Diggins, the staff are in a prime spot to pick and choose instead of reaching or hoping. They’re in a spot to be selective with who they target next. Maybe even turning down prospects, compared to two years ago they’re trying to add top 100 guys. Now they’re turning down top 100 talent.”

What a difference a new conference and a relentless coaching staff make. Instead of having to sell a kid from Florida on playing Tulsa and Tulane twice, Dan Hurley and company are battling the likes of Seton Hall and Villanova for the likes of top-100 talent Jakai Robinson and Trevor Keels, as Evans noted on the pod. Plus, Xavier target Jordan Hawkins —albeit from DeMatha in Maryland, so not necessarily local — is rumored to be next, which could give a Musketeer fans a taste of what its like to battle the Huskies on the recruiting trail.

Fast forward a year, and there’s a 7’2 prize in Bristol to be had. 2022 Donovan Clingan from Bristol, is, in Evans’ words, “one of the better kept secrets throughout the northeast region.” It’s early, he’s not even close to a decision, and the jury is out as to whether he’ll stay in 2022 or reclassify, but Evans labeled the Huskies as the team to beat so far.

There really is no place like home.