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NCAA Tournament bid signals a breakthrough for the Dan Hurley era

In his third season as head coach of the Huskies, Dan Hurley has a deep, talented team firing on all cylinders.

NCAA Basketball: Big East Conference Tournament-Connecticut vs DePaul Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

When head coach Dan Hurley was hired in 2018, UConn men’s basketball was in a valley, toiling in a low-interest conference with a coaching regime that let the program dip.

Hurley had a true rebuild on his hands as UConn recorded its worst-ranked season in the KenPom era (since 2001) during the 2017-18 campaign under Kevin Ollie – finishing No. 179. Ollie was fired two days after the season was over.

Just three years after this low point for the program, UConn was selected as the No. 7 seed in the East Region of the NCAA Tournament. The Huskies are ranked 16th in KenPom and arguably a more dangerous team than their ranking considering the eight games star guard James Bouknight missed earlier this season due to an elbow injury.

It’s a sign of what Hurley and this staff are capable of as they’ve brought the program forward quite a bit since 2018.

“You pop the hood sometimes and it’s worse than what the car looks like,” Hurley said after Sunday’s selection show.

Hurley’s first season showed that he could get a lot out of the talent he has on hand. It was not a loaded roster, but they did alright and finished 16-17.

That offseason, UConn brought in a recruiting class that altered the course of the program – including guards James Bouknight, Jalen Gaffney, and transfer R.J. Cole, in addition to the midseason acquisition of top-end big man prospect Akok Akok.

That foundation, along with a boost from returning to the Big East, has helped UConn bring excitement back to men’s hoops. Not only did the Huskies qualify for the NCAA Tournament, but they’re a team that nobody wants to face this March. UConn was listed as a sleeper by the NCAA’s Andy Katz on the Titus & Tate show. The Huskies are also tied for the ninth-highest betting odds to win the tournament at 33/1, according to BetOnline.

“College basketball is even more exciting when UConn is relevant, really good and playing in March,” Hurley said. “It’s a beautiful moment to be back in it after five years.”

It has been a long road since that title, though, with UConn going through a massive culture shift in a very short time.

“This place was in shambles when [Bouknight] got here and now, we’re getting the chance to enjoy the selection show,” Hurley said.

Since Bouknight arrived on campus last year, the Huskies have a 34-19 record overall. This season, UConn was 11-3 in games he played in and just 4-4 in games he missed.

It wasn’t as easy as adding an All-American-type player, though. UConn went through a transformation toward the end of the 2019-20 campaign, after a rough patch in the middle of the season. The team began to click in the final games with senior Christian Vital at the helm. While the COVID-19 pandemic cut the season short prior to the American Tournament, the team’s progression helped lay the foundation for the success of the 2020-21 squad.

This year, the Huskies made some key offseason additions to build its depth around the pillars of Bouknight and R.J. Cole. Hurley added transfer Tyrese Martin from URI as well as freshmen Adama Sanogo and Andre Jackson in an elite recruiting class.

Martin has been a mainstay in the starting lineup since the beginning of the season and carried the team offensively during Bouknight’s absence. Cole sat all of the 2020 season after transferring from Howard but has been the key facilitator and scorer needed to compliment a player like Bouknight.

The freshmen have come along a bit slower than they normally would, with the program forced to pause multiple times due to COVID-19 issues. They have still made major impacts in the past couple of months, though. Sanogo has been especially impressive, as he played his way onto the Big East All-Freshman and All-Tournament teams this season.

This year’s senior class has been here longer than Hurley, as well, choosing to stay when UConn went through the coaching change. They helped change the locker room culture and now Tyler Polley, Isaiah Whaley, and Josh Carlton have the chance to realize their tournament dreams.

“It was a crazy feeling, that was a feeling I’ve been waiting to feel since I got here freshman year,” Polley said.

Each senior has shined at moments throughout this season. Polley rescued UConn from the brinks of disaster against Marquette on the day Bouknight hurt his elbow, dropping 23 points in a comeback win. Whaley has put on a defensive showing this season, playing his way into a Big East Co-Defensive Player of the Year. Carlton helped push UConn past USC in December and provided some key minutes in the post later on in the season.

Following the Marquette game, the team was scuffling during Bouknight’s injury but held a team meeting to sort out everyone’s role. Since then, UConn went from a bubble team to a legitimate NCAA Tournament contender. Grinding through all of the mystical Hurley practices and pauses have landed them at the forefront of the college basketball scene once again.

“I can’t even explain the feeling, over the past three days my emotions have just been up and down,” Bouknight said. “This is what you work for the whole year, to play under these bright lights.”

This is what Hurley was brought in to do. He has been nicknamed “The Carpenter” for a reason — he’s a rebuilder.

At URI, he improved the Rams’ KenPom rating by 73% over three years – going from No. 255 the year before he arrived to No. 60 in year three. He brought Rhode Island to the NCAA Tournament after five years in Kingston — two years slower than what he’s done at UConn where the Huskies have now reached the tournament after just three seasons with Hurley at the helm.

Bouknight and his teammates have bought into the Hurley model and it has paid off to this point. Now, they are one step closer to returning the program to prominence and have a shot to play for the ultimate glory — UConn’s fifth national championship.

“UConn is built for March, this is where we belong,” Bouknight said.