With the season opener on Monday, an exciting combination of confidence and nerves is compounding for the UConn men’s basketball team.
Energy exudes from Alex Karaban, who enrolled at UConn for the 2022 spring semester and practiced and traveled with the team despite not being able to play.
“I’m ready to go,” he said. “I’m excited. I’ve been waiting for this for a really, really long time.”
“I’ve been doing a lot of yoga, a lot of meditation. Coaches tell me all the time, ‘stay calm.’ I’m gonna try to stay as calm as possible. But not being on the court for two years definitely has a certain level of like, pain inside of me that I want to release and I’ve been waiting to release this for so long.”
For Hurley, the start of a new season is always exciting – “I live for this,” he said Saturday. But this year, with all of the new, veteran players he is trying to adapt to his system, especially with his go-to leader Andre Jackson missing the first few games, it’s scary.
“This is probably the scariest for me going into an opener because you have incredibly high expectations, but you also don’t have a lot of people that have proven that they can do it for you on a game night here,” he said, referencing the four older transfers he brought in (Tristen Newton, Hassan Diarra, Nahiem Alleyne and Joey Calcaterra).
“it’s basically just Adama (Sanogo) and really Jordan (Hawkins) with Andre out, so it’s probably the most vulnerable that you feel about a group going into an opening night but I guess you find some sleep because you know your scrimmages, you felt pretty good about how those went. But now the lights come on and there’s a different level of pressure and excitement and juice when you put on a UConn uniform and you’ve got to carry that history what you want to onto the court.”
The question has been about toughness – Hurley hasn’t been happy with the way his team has defended through their closed-door scrimmages – but it all comes back to the uncertainty he has with not having many players who’ve played his style of basketball before.
After a few increased intensity practices, on Saturday Hurley noted that he is mostly worried about the huddles.
“It’s a bunch of first-year players with us, or a bunch of first-year big roles with us, it’s really just Adama. It’s hard to ask Jordan to do that because we’re looking for Jordan to produce at a high level on the perimeter as a sophomore, so it’s hard to ask him to carry the leadership mantle of managing huddles and being our leading perimeter scorer,” he said.
Hurley has prepared the team in what he thinks is the best way to counteract the game day nerves and the anxiety, with his typical tough practices and astronomical expectations.
“What we put them through in here is tougher than or as tough as anything they’re gonna experience on the court. It’s about being able to manage your emotions and the butterflies and the nerves playing in front of people,” he said.
Injury updates: Jackson, who should ease some of the nerves once he returns from his broken pinky finger, has been able to participate in defensive drills and has been shooting in practice. Donovan Clingan, the 7-2 freshman from Bristol Central, has been dealing with an undisclosed injury, but is “day-to-day,” according to Hurley. Karaban, who’s been dealing with sprained ankles, one after the other, is back to full participation – “it’s the best he’s looked since pre-ankle,” Hurley said.