UConn has the perfect man for the job. Now can he pull off the perfect rebuild?
Only one team in college basketball has won four national championships in the past 20 years. It’s not Duke, or Kansas, or North Carolina. It’s not Kentucky or Villanova either. The only team that can claim that feat is the University of Connecticut. And while all the other aforementioned programs are inching closer to that next national title, UConn feels lightyears away from it.
Five years, several allegations, a multi-season tournament drought, and a fired head coach separate the Huskies from that last title back in 2014. Things seemed to have spiraled out of control. At least one man, however, still believes that Storrs is home to “the best basketball tradition in all of college.” That man is Dan Hurley, and he’s the new head basketball coach for the Connecticut Huskies.
Hurley inherits a tall task. He left a 26-win Rhode Island team to join a 14-win UConn team with no recruiting class, and is tasked with returning the Huskies to the elite standing that their fan base demands. This is a team that finished 300th in the nation in scoring last year, 231st in rebounding, and 193rd in scoring defense.
All that adds up to one word that coaches and fans alike put off saying until they can’t put it off anymore: rebuilding. Hurley has accepted that role with open arms. He’s said time and again that this rebuild isn’t going to be easy, and it isn’t going to happen overnight, but he’s up for the challenge. Given his success at Rhode Island, there’s no doubt Hurley is the right man for the job. Here are the three ways he can rebuild Connecticut basketball as fast as possible.
1. Rely heavily on three-guard lineups to up the tempo
Under Kevin Ollie last season, UConn ranked 231st in extra scoring chances per game, a statistic that takes into account scoring opportunities generated and given up by offensive rebounds and turnovers. The Huskies gave up an average of 1.2 more scoring opportunities per game than they earned. This discrepancy is largely a result of passive defense, not forcing turnovers, and a failure to attack the glass on both sides of the ball. This is where Hurley comes into play. His Rams excelled in creating extra scoring chances last season, ranking third in the country at 7.4 more than their opponents on average.
Hurley’s team did this using predominantly three- or four-guard lineups. A lot of that was due to the roster construction, but it fit Hurley’s aggressive, fast-paced style that allowed him to win games. Rhode Island routinely pressured the ball in the half court to cause turnovers, and looked to score in transition. The Rams were at their best when they were attacking with speed, rather than trying to score using a slow, methodical offense. This was on display early in their tournament game against Oklahoma.
UConn doesn’t shoot the three as well as Rhode Island, and doesn’t rebound as well either, which is why playing four guards on the floor at once might be a stretch, but three guards allows them to pressure the ball more without worrying about being beaten off the dribble. Creating turnovers with this ball pressure leads to easier scoring opportunities in transition, and this is where the Huskies were at their best in 2017-18. They really struggled against defensive sets, often going long periods of time without scoring, and a lot of that struggle is because they couldn’t rely on any easy buckets to get them going. When they were able to get in transition, Jaylen Adams and Christian Vital showed off their speed and athleticism getting to the cup. You could see the shift in their game against Cincinnati.
After several scoreless minutes to open up the game, Adams recognizes that Cane Broome is cheating up in the backcourt, and knows that a pass ahead to Vital can get him a running start toward the rim for a bucket. It took a while to get on the board, but the first time the Huskies went up tempo, they were able to convert. Combine this duo with once-heralded freshman Alterique Gilbert, who is coming off a season-ending shoulder injury, and the Huskies have three quick combo guards that can all score in bunches when given the opportunity and a coach who knows just how to put them in position to do so. Expect to see a lot more three-guard action from Hurley this season.
2. Emphasize rebounding without fouling
The other half of the extra scoring chances formula is offensive rebounding, and UConn was historically bad in that department last season. A lot of that is effort, and a lack of effort flat out won’t be tolerated by the always boisterous Hurley. Chalk most of it up to youth and inexperience, though. Guys like Mamadou Diarra, Josh Carlton, and Isaiah Whaley are extremely raw and often don’t slide their feet or move opponents out of the way well enough to get in position to rebound. Sometimes that transition is tough for freshmen. All three of those guys are probably accustomed to being able to get every board just because of their sheer size, but that’s not going to fly in the American Athletic Conference.
They’ll learn with time, but they’ll learn more quickly with coaching. UConn’s bigs routinely found themselves in foul trouble, and the bulk of those fouls came trying to prevent opponents from grabbing offensive rebounds. Just look at this effort by David Onuorah trying to clear out Gary Clark.
That isn’t boxing out. Onuorah just turns around and tries to push Gary Clark away from the basket. When your bigs struggle to rebound without fouling like this, it’s really tough to win ballgames. The Huskies lost the rebounding battle almost every night. That was never more evident than in their game against South Florida, a team that finished with three conference victories and just 10 wins on the season. The Bulls out-rebounded them 15-5 on the offensive glass that night. Hurley needs to stress boxing out, which should be easier to do now that he’ll likely be running man-to-man defense.
It might seem like switching to a small ball lineup with three guards and trying to improve on the boards are antithetical, but they really aren’t. With just one big, Rhode Island finished just ahead of Connecticut in rebounding last season, and Hurley’s centers in Andre Berry and Cyril Langevine aren’t exactly glass eaters. With two more mature frontcourt players, Connecticut should be a better rebounding team if Hurley continues to develop his bigs.
3. Recruit, recruit, recruit
This is the bedrock of any rebuild at the collegiate level, and Hurley figures to be great at it. He just posted a top-50 recruiting class for a mid-major program, and was able to flip Brendan Adams, a former Rhode Island commit, to UConn. Still, one three-star recruit for one of the more storied programs in college basketball isn’t going to cut it. This is a program accustomed to landing first-round talent. Hurley has to sell the end goal, not the process, because the final version of a vintage UConn team is a title contender year in and year out. The idea that any of his next recruits can be a Ray Allen, Rip Hamilton, Rudy Gay, Kemba Walker, or Andre Drummond has to be at the forefront of his pitch.
Perhaps his best asset shares the same court as him. Geno Auriemma has been recruiting the best talent in the nation for the UConn women, and Hurley would be wise to use him as a resource early and often. All his selling points aside, recruiting at a top level should come naturally to Hurley. He’s established a mantra already: excellence in every facet of his players’ lives, and he has that Calipari-like mentality of catering to a player’s future beyond college basketball. He’s a players’ coach, he’s loud, and he cares, and if there’s any doubt about his care for the people around him, just look at his reaction to his brother Bobby making the tournament with Arizona State.
Five years have separated Connecticut’s last national championship and the rebuild upon which this team is about to embark. It took just five years for a program to fall from greatness. Five years from now, this team might not just reach greatness again. They might reach the national championship again. And Dan Hurley will be the reason why.
Edited by Emily Berman.
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