How Dan Hurley became the face of UConn Huskies basketball

BOSTON — At the “under 4” timeout in the second half of UConn’s Elite Eight evisceration of Illinois at TD Garden on Saturday, coach Dan Hurley walked across the court and began waving his arms to whip the crowd into a frenzy.

The UConn The faithful who turned this Garden into Storrs North for a long weekend responded accordingly to the pleas of Hurley’s arms, and he channeled that energy to a touching crescendo — a chest-bump with his son, Andrew, a UConn walk-on.

The scene epitomized a game that offered the full Danny Hurley experience, as his foot-stomping histrionics drew grins from comedian Larry David, who was sitting in the front row. Hurley’s day ranged from frenetic to introspective, as No. 1 overall seed UConn blowtorched No. 3 Illinois in the second half to win 77-52 and push toward more rare air.

All eyes will be on Hurley for the next week, as he has led UConn in the Final Four for a second consecutive season and has emerged through early failures at the program to somewhat suddenly become one of the faces of an entire sport.

And, fittingly, he’s not ducking any of the pressure or stakes. “The level of basketball that we’re playing right now,” he said matter-of-factly, “is going to be really, really hard to beat.”

With his horn-rimmed glasses, streams of sarcastic New Jersey bile and a look on his face as if the officials are trying to convince him of the Easter Bunny’s existence on every whistle, Hurley is at the helm of one of the sport’s most dominant teams. in recent memory and on the cusp of joining elite coaching company.

That dominance manifested in one of the most remarkable cloudbursts in NCAA tournament history Saturday evening in Boston. UConn rattled off a remarkable 30 consecutive points to humiliate a 29-win Illinois team that entered the game with the country’s No. 2 offense.

“The level of basketball that we’ve played to this point, it’s been unmatched, just the defense, and unmatched in terms of what we’ve been able to do here and the dominance of the quality teams,” Hurley told a small group. of reporters after the game.

Fluent in deprecation and with a sideline face that twists into a perpetual state of bemusement, even Hurley came away impressed. And he freely acknowledged the hairpin turn his own reputation has taken in the past 12 months. A year ago, he entered the tournament as a well-known coach in need of a big postseason after his first four seasons at UConn ended with no NCAA wins. (To be fair, the canceled 2020 NCAA tournament was part of one of those seasons.)

The low points included an upset loss to New Mexico State in the 2022 tournament, with Hurley recalling the name Saturday night of the vagabond Aggies star Teddy Allen, who led 12-seed NMSU over 5-seed UConn that day in Buffalo with 37 points.

“There were blind spots for this program to become elite,” Hurley said. “So that sucked, man. That was some deep dark depression for a week, 10 days, two weeks. But coming out of that, we’ve made all the right moves and we’ve been the best program in the country really since that moment.”

The Final Four bid already puts Hurley among the most prominent faces in the sport. And with top-seeded UConn headed to Glendale, Arizona, as the prohibitive favorite to repeat as national champion, Hurley suddenly finds himself on the cusp of elite company in a sport that has seen legends fleeing the sidelines.

Consider that if UConn were to win two games in Arizona, Hurley would join Bill Self and Rick Pitino as the only active coaches to have won two NCAA tournaments. With the retirement of Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams and Jay Wright in recent years, Hurley has ridden a pair of transcendent teams into rare air in the coaching space.

“If I am one of those [faces of the sport], I’m probably a good one because I’m authentic, and I am who I am,” he said. “I’m basically a high school coach that’s like masquerading up at this college level. I don’t really care what people necessarily think of my intensity, it obviously shows up the right way with my team. We don’t cheat, we don’t lie. I think we’re about all the right things. Just, at times, I’m an a–hole.”

Hurley acknowledged that UConn will head to Arizona as the villain, which he said the fan base’s “obnoxious” nature accentuates. “So everyone hates us,” he said.

Being the son of a Hall of Fame coach, Bob Hurley Sr., and younger brother of an NBA lottery pick, Bobby Hurley, has often left Danny Hurley a compelling psychological portrait. He was a modest player at Seton Hall and began his career, like his father, as a high school coach in North Jersey.

UConn athletic director David Benedict mentioned the “burden” of being surrounded by that type of superlative success.

“There is, without question, a burden on someone like him growing up the way he grew up, living with the successes of his brother,” Benedict said. “So to see him have this level of success, I mean, how can you not be happy for him? It’s got to feel really good for him and all the people around him.”

Benedict stressed how hard it is to go to back-to-back Final Fours. That’s only accentuated by a roster that lost three linchpin pieces from last season — Adama Sanogo, Jordan Hawkins and Andre Jackson Jr. — and the generally fluid nature of college basketball, where one season now has little link to the prior one.

Hurley said in the wake of the national title last year that he felt pressure to show the fan base he wouldn’t coast. And the Huskies’ revamped roster has seen Tristen Newton turn into a first-team All-America point guard, center Donovan Clingan emerge as a likely top-10 NBA draft pick and transfer Cam Spencer evolve into a do-it-all pest who averages 14.5 points per game.

And while some of the roster has turned over, Hurley’s intensity has remained relentless.

“They’re not going to get some guy that’s going to rest on his laurels after winning one, and he’s just going to go and ring the bell at the stock exchange and go hang out with [President Joe] Biden, and then he’s going to take a year off and do the honeymoon [things],” he said. “I’m an obsessed coach, and I’m going to be more of a maniac the next couple of days than I was leading up to this. I promise you.

“And then when this season’s over, it’s going to be worse.”

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