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A Reflection on the Hurley Era: Year Three

The season may not have ended as UConn planned, but there is no denying the progress that Hurley has made

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

The season may not have ended how anyone wanted or anticipated, but let’s have some perspective rather than a quick, emotional reaction to a first-round loss against Maryland.

UConn played one bad game (okay, it was pretty bad but still). One bad game. And, they hung tough the entire 40 minutes. They couldn’t buy a bucket, but never quit. UConn should have lost that game by 30 points. Yet, somehow, they made Maryland sweat the entire game, despite shooting an abysmal 32% from the field as a team. They lost by 9. There are no moral victories for the program at this point, but the fact that UConn had me believing a win was a within reach until there was about a minute or so left should tell you everything you need to know about where the program is and where it is heading. Great teams find a way to win when things aren’t going their way. You can tell that is just around the corner, and the team fell just short last night. That doesn’t ruin the three years of progress under Hurley. Let’s take a quick stroll down memory lane to gain some perspective.

In Kevin Ollie’s last two years, UConn went 16-17 (9-9) and 14-18 (7-11) in the American Athletic Conference (AAC). The Huskies finished 96th and 179th in Kenpom in those two years, respectively. Prior to 2015, UConn had only finished outside of the top 50 in Kenpom TWICE going all the way back to 2002 (56th in 2007, 51st in 2010). As a fan base, UConn has been spoiled by a wealth of success.

Dan Hurley was hired to continue that wealth of success by bringing UConn back to national relevance and competing at the highest level. In three seasons he has accomplished that. There is no denying that. Let’s take a quick look.

In Hurley’s first season the Huskies went 16-17 (6-12), finishing 98th in Kenpom. Josh Calrton shared AAC Most Improved Player. Then, UConn Nation was blessed with an unforeseen gift. A return to the Big East. Keep in mind, Hurley had no idea this was a possibility when he took the job. He was fully expecting to lead UConn back to prominence in the AAC, not the Big East. In his second season, a farewell tour in the AAC, the Huskies went 19-12 (10-8). UConn finished the season with 5 straight wins before COVID struck and how that season would have ended will forever remain a mystery. The Huskies finished 52nd in Kenpom.

This past season, UConn’s first back in the Big East, was the most anticipated UConn season in recent memory. The team was easy to root for. UConn had 3 beloved seniors who stuck with the program through tough times including a coaching and conference change. The team had a star and future NBA lottery pick, James Bouknight, who had the weight of UConn Nation on his shoulders. The team had a freshman center who already looked like an unstoppable force. Andre Jackson, one of the most athletic players to ever don a UConn jersey (shout out to the likes of Rudy Gay, Stanley Robinson, and Scott Burrell). Should I keep going? An incoming recruiting class with three top-100, four-star players. Did I mention that UConn already has a stud combo-guard commit for the 2022 class; one that Villanova tried to swoop in and steal at the last moment? Things are going to be okay.

That’s on the future, which is bright as ever. But for now, let’s focus on this past season. The Huskies finished the season 15-8 (11-6) in their first season back in a much tougher conference, the Big East. James Bouknight earned All-Big East First Team. Isaiah Whaley won co-defensive player of the year. Tyler Polley won Sixth Man of the year. Adama Sanogo made the All-Freshman team. RJ Cole and Tyler Polley each won Big East player of the Week. And these are only some of the individual accolades.

As a team, UConn was predicted to finish fourth and finished third, behind only Villanova and Creighton. The team, like many others, faced multiple COVID pauses. Andre Jackson missed crucial time with a knee injury during the offseason and then with a wrist injury mid-season. James Bouknight missed 8 games; UConn went 4-4 during that stretch. The Huskies were 11-4 with Bouknight in the lineup. Despite all of these unanticipated speed bumps, UConn earned a 7 seed; their first time back in the NCAA tournament since 2016 (that’s 1,827 days to be exact, but who’s counting?). This is no small accomplishment given the circumstances. We should also keep in mind that UConn didn’t have Akok Akok this entire season. Akok and Bouknight were the top two recruits in Hurley’s first true recruiting class. Hurley got two top 50 level recruits to commit to him and his vision for UConn in the AAC! You can already see how that’s improving with the move to the Big East.

The Huskies finished the season with a disappointing performance against Maryland in the first round. Maryland was a tough matchup for the Huskies style of play. Could they have played better, obviously. But let’s not sit here and act like one loss mitigates three years of the tireless work Dan Hurley, the staff, and the players have put in to bring respect back to the UConn brand, and joy to the fans. Raise your hand if you drank hot sauce and donated money for any other UConn team… didn’t think so. All in all, the season went about as well as anyone could have possibly expected given the circumstances.

What about next season? I already touched on this a bit above, but the future is bright. Yet, I see a lot of people complaining about the lack of shooters, the roster construction, etc. Ye have little faith. Dan Hurley is here for a reason, but he is a relatively young coach who is still learning. I think the staff did an incredible job in their first year in the Big East. They had to scout and learn about 10 new opponents. The rest of the Big East had to add just one new opponent to their list, UConn. The team and the staff are only going to improve, but that takes time. You can tell how much a loss pains Hurley, he and the players feels it more than you do, despite what you might think.

Believe me, I know. I’m a die-hard UConn fan myself and have been my entire life. I obsess over everything they do, just like many of you. Afterall, I write about them in my spare time for fun. But we need to keep perspective sometimes. Progress isn’t linear, and not every season can end with a national championship. UConn finished 23rd in Kenpom this season, 23rd! Do you know what 179 minus 23 is? That’s right, Hurley has improved UConn’s final season ranking by 156 spots in just three seasons. Say that one more time if you need to remind yourself of the progress that has been made. The team was ranked in the top-25 for one week and received votes many other weeks. If not for the Bouknight injury, the Huskies might have spent the latter half of the season comfortably in the top-25. There’s no point in speculating about what could have been, but if you’re not all in on the Huskies and Hurley, I’m not sure what more you could want?

Are their questions remaining for next year’s roster? Sure, of course. But there are going to be questions after every season, and especially a season like this one. For the first time ever, seniors can return, and this won’t impact the scholarship count. There are too many unknowns and the season just ended yesterday. Let’s have a little patience. There can be as many as 3 open scholarships next season (Whaley, Carlton, Polley can chose to leave or return; Bouknight is gone to the NBA; Brendan Adams graduated in 3-years; and Javonte Brown transferred to Texas A&M mid-season). The incoming freshman class (Diggins, Hawkins, and Johnson) is Hurley’s best yet. I’m excited to see what happens with the open scholarships, but I think we need to give it some time before panicking, hasn’t Hurley earned that?

I guess my point in writing this is just to say this: relax UConn Nation. I love the enthusiasm, and love being part of the crazy fan base, but all is well, so let’s keep some perspective. This season was forever going to have an asterisk next to it regardless of the outcome and one bad loss to end the season shouldn’t and, quite frankly, doesn’t change the outlook for the program. We have a capable leader in Dan Hurley, an excellent coaching staff, an athletic director that refuses to let UConn be bad at basketball, and an insatiable fan base. We have been spoiled by success. UConn has been “bad” for maybe 5 or so seasons in my entire lifetime. Jim Calhoun spoiled us. Dan Hurley will continue to spoil us, just give him some time. Oh, and don’t forget, UConn is back in the Big East, things are only going to get better from here.

In the meantime, everyone stay safe, and hopefully we get to show the team our support in person next season. Go Huskies.