As Dan Hurley’s fourth season dawns, hopes turn to expectations for UConn men’s basketball program

·9 min read

In our world, many things are divided into four-year cycles. Four years of high school and it’s time to graduate and move on to the next educational step. Four years in college and, generally, it’s time to dive into real life. Four years in most elective offices and it’s time to submit your record to the voters.

In college basketball, the coach’s fourth year on the job often brings expectations of a leap year, the culmination, rather than continuation, of a building or rebuilding process.

“You’re trying to introduce a culture and a way of doing things and by your fourth year, they should be there,” said Hall of Famer Jim Calhoun, whose fourth season at UConn brought the celebrated Dream Season in 1989-90. “There’s a degree of confidence in that. The knowns are more established, you can build off it and you don’t feel like you’re doing all the coaching, but your players who have been with you understand that when you say something, it means something.

“By the fourth year you are kind of settled in and they’re ‘your kids.’”

It’s all to note that when the lights go on at Gampel Pavilion on Tuesday night, Dan Hurley’s fourth season as UConn men’s basketball coach begins, a season for which he has been recruiting, evaluating, building since arriving in March 2018.

“They made the NCAA Tournament last year. That was step one,” said Geno Auriemma, whose first 20-win season and Big East championship came in his fourth season with the UConn women’s team in 1988-89. “That was the big deal, and you can build on that. Our recruiting got better and better, and we added more pieces. That’s kind of the exact same plane [the UConn men] seem to be on. People are saying they’re one of the two top teams in the Big East, that comes with a certain level of expectation, but you have an experienced team with a lot of young energy to handle those expectations.”

Since Hurley has been UConn’s coach, he has often reminded fans and media what year it was, and what that year in the process should look like. Progress has closely followed his road map: The Huskies had two losing seasons before Kevin Ollie was let go, and Hurley’s first season also ended below .500, at 16-17, but UConn looked more competitive. With the second season came tangible improvement, close losses, but a late surge and a 19-12 record before the coronavirus pandemic stopped play. Last season, though often disrupted by the pandemic, UConn transitioned to the Big East and made the NCAA Tournament for the first time in five years, finishing 15-8 after a first-round loss to Maryland.

“It just looks like the classic building of a program,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “UConn has come back each year with Danny and you could see his fingerprints are on the team. ... I see it happening in a very similar way to every stop he’s been at.”

Rutgers’ program had changed conferences three times and had not gone to the NCAA Tournament since 1991 when Steve Pikiell, 53, from Bristol, was hired in 2016, after leading Stony Brook to the tournament. “From day one I just tried to establish what my program was going to be about,” Pikiell said. “I’ve never thought in terms of years, but just, ‘Are we getting better?’”

Pikiell, who played on Calhoun’s early UConn teams, brought steady progress from the bottom of the rugged Big Ten, and in Year 4, the RAC, now called Jersey Mike’s Arena, was filled for every game and became one of the toughest places for conference rivals to play. The Scarlet Knights finished 20-11 before the season was halted. In his fifth season, 2020-21, they won 16 and made it to March Madness.

“Every job is different,” Pikiell said. “When you change leagues that makes your job completely different, too. Here, in my build, I started to get a feel for the conference, a feel for the travel, a feel for my roster, a feel in recruiting. Every year is important when you take over a program and you’re building something, but by the time you get to that fourth year, you have as good a feel as any. [Hurley’s] doing an unbelievable job. He’s a heck of a coach. They’re going to have an exciting year. ”

When Calhoun, who had been coaching Northeastern, first came to UConn in the summer of 1986, a famous story goes, he was walking through the old fieldhouse and asked assistant Howie Dickenman if he heard a sound. Dickenman heard nothing. “Exactly,” Calhoun said.

Soon the sound of basketballs bouncing would be echoing no matter wat time of year it was. Coaches didn’t use the word “culture” then as much as they do now, but that’s what Calhoun was talking about. After a 9-19 first season, the Huskies rallied late to win the NIT in Year Two, returned to the NIT in Year 3 and then, after a sluggish start, rolled to a 31-6 record, winning the Big East tournament before being eliminated in the Elite Eight in 1990. The stage was set for Calhoun’s ensuing national championships in 1999, 2004 and 2011.

“We had a younger group at that time,” said Calhoun, 79, beginning his fourth season since starting the program at St. Joseph in West Hartford, “but we had got the pressure [defense] in, and a couple of guys had established themselves as really good players. Maybe not in football, because there are so many players, but in basketball, after four years, it’s your program, your kids, your style and there is a comfort level you can even do more. You’re trying to build what you believe in and early on it doesn’t look pretty, but three or four years in they should be able to do what you ask them to do.”

The UConn women’s program had only one winning season between 1974 and ‘85 when Auriemma, a young assistant at Virginia, was hired. The Huskies had a 12-15 record his first year, then landed a huge recruit, Kerry Bascom, and had his first winning season. In Year 4, 1988-89, UConn finished 24-6, and has since won 11 national championships.

“The year we went 24-6 we had brought in seven freshmen,” Auriemma, 67, said, “and Meghan Pattyson, Wendy Davis and Debbie Baer and those players, and four really, really good players we had back, and we won the Big East championship. That combination of players who had played and an influx of new guys that can really, really play and contribute and are skilled, that’s the combination that opens that lock.”

That’s the combination the UConn men have on paper. Hurley kept the players he inherited from Ollie, and two, Isaiah Whaley and Tyler Polley, are still with him as fifth-year seniors. His best recruit to date, James Bouknight, has come and gone to the NBA, but Hurley has stacked highly ranked recruiting classes. Now he has four starters and several key off-the-bench guys from last season’s team, with four freshmen considered four-star recruits or better coming aboard this season.

The Huskies (24th) are in the AP’s Preseason Top 25 for the first time since 2016 and were picked second to Villanova in the Big East preseason poll, so they won’t be “sneaking up” on anyone.

“We have an older, mature team that understands what it takes,” Hurley said. “We’ve got a lot of quality that has been part of a strong culture, a winning culture now, a professional culture. You’re always anxious and a little bit nervous as a coach knowing who your team is before real game competition, but since I’ve been at UConn this is the most confident and relaxed that I’ve felt going into a year.

“I’m sleeping better. In general, I’m a lot more upbeat. I’m a lot more enjoyable to be around. My wife notices a more confident husband. My kids see their dad is in better spirits. I’m just a lot more pleasant to be around.”

At Rhode Island, Hurley’s previous coaching job, the Rams went 23-10 and made the NIT in his third season. In Year 4, he lost is top player, E.C. Mathews, to a major knee injury and finished 17-15. The breakthrough was delayed, not denied; Rhode Island went 51-18 over the next two seasons, reaching the NCAA Tournament.

So Hurley, 48, has brought a program to this brink before. As he begins Year 4 at UConn, it’s the season that is expected to put his stamp indelibly on the program’s history. With the elevated expectations, Year 4 naturally brings a new brand of pressure.

“The pressure you feel is to maximize that particular team’s ability, and you don’t want to waste it,” Auriemma said, “You never want to hear, ‘We’re a year away.’ A coach never wants to hear that. I’m sure in Danny Hurley’s mind, he’s thinking, a run in the NCAA Tournament, and anything other than that — forget how the fans would feel or how anyone else would feel — I think if the season ended exactly as it did last year, there would be tremendous disappointment on their part, on the coaches’ part, on players’ part, because they expect more from themselves. And I would be shocked if that’s how the season ended for this team.”

Said Calhoun: “They’ve recruited very well, have a ton of talent, a good mixture, a lot of guys you can rely on. Do you feel pressure? If you don’t, you’re probably not very normal. You keep saying things, ‘championship caliber,’ or ‘elite,’ whatever word you use, you keep saying it, then you better do it, or at least be in the hunt to get the things that you want.”

Dom Amore can be reached at damore@courant.com.