Intensity. That’s the one constant in every answer given by the UConn men’s basketball team following its first official practice of the season Saturday afternoon. Hurley is intense, his practices are intense and it’s jarring—but welcomed.
“The biggest difference with [Hurley]? I think just his presence,” Jalen Adams, who did not practice Saturday with a minor finger injury, said. “Before, he would kinda call things out and just kinda let it keep going… but now, you just feel him no matter what you do. No matter what shortcut you try to take, he’s right there calling you out. You just feel him on everybody’s back just trying to create good habits.”
Good habits are certainly something the team needs to build back up. UConn is coming off its second straight losing season, the first time the program has had back-to-back losing seasons since the Dee Rowe era in the 1970s. Since the championship season in 2014, the Huskies have only won one NCAA Tournament game.
UConn’s legacy is what brought Hurley here, and it’s the driving force behind his practice regimen. At the end of a long two hours, Hurley ran a drill where the team must make 23 layups in two minutes. It’s meticulous and calculated—every player must sprint from baseline to baseline, the passes must be perfect and the layups short and sweet. There is no room for error.
A drill as simple as that kept the team back for an extra 20 minutes.
“It’s simple stuff. Catching the ball with two hands, landing or jump-stopping, blocking out, being in the right defensive position, what does a defensive stance look like?” Hurley said. “It’s a good finisher [drill]. It’s about doing the simple things well… I don’t know how many takes that was. If we were in Hollywood, that probably would have been, like, seven takes.”
Hurley acknowledged that it’s going to take some time for the team to really get back where it needs to be, and with a season like 2017-18 in the rearview mirror, the team is going to need some leaders. While Hurley said he sees himself as the primary leader, team veteran Christian Vital sees himself filling that role too.
“We’re starting to understand when he wants us to talk and when he wants us to be quiet and listen, so it’s an everyday battle,” Vital said. “Plenty of times he’s told me that the energy I have and that I bring, we’re gonna need that, that we do need it. It’s my job just to understand what he needs for me to bring to the team and that’s what I gotta do.”
Vital, the only true junior on the roster, is second only to Adams in leadership experience and years in the UConn program—Alterique Gilbert has had to watch the last two seasons unfold from the sidelines. But now he’s back in the mix, feeling “great” health-wise and not skipping a beat.
“On and off the court, we gotta get better,” Gilbert said. “We gotta become a better team, and that’s what coach is trying to tell us each and every day… [Hurley’s] intensity is very big. He’s very passionate about the game. As players, we have to match his intensity.”
With such a young team, Hurley is trying to figure out which puzzle pieces fit where. Right now, his biggest issue is finding someone for the 4 spot. No matter if they decide to play big with Kassoum Yakwe or small with a third guard, Hurley has seen improvement with the fountcourt early on.
“Eric [Cobb]’s in really great shape, you can see that here. He’s moving well. He’s gotta get a lot better on defense, he’s gotta rebound the ball better,” Hurley said. “I think Josh [Carlton]’s motor is picking up—it’s not where it needs to be, but it’s getting closer. I think Isaiah [Whaley]’s gotta improve his skillset, but he’s a pretty good glue guy.”
There’s still a month before the first exhibition game, but Hurley knows what he has to do between now and Nov. 2—get back to those winning habits.
“Obviously, we got a lot of work to do,” Hurley said. “Just trying to develop the type of habits you want to have as a team. You’re also too trying to implement a style of play that’s just so different for these guys, so that’s going to take a little bit of time. Overall, these guys came in with good energy and good intentions, it’s just a process we gotta go through to develop winning habits.”