It was an ugly Wednesday night at Gampel Pavilion, a night on which UConn suffered a stunning defeat to Saint Joseph’s on its home court. After the game, head coach Dan Hurley was more solemn and demoralized than he’s ever been during his UConn tenure.
Even after some of the most heartbreaking losses a year ago, Hurley didn’t appear quite so defeated. Throughout last season, a difficult debut year marred by injuries and incomplete performances, Hurley repeatedly emphasized the weight of the program’s recent losing on his team’s shoulders. The program was in Year 1 of rebuilding its fallen expectations.
In Year 2, those issues were supposed to subside, or, optimistically, disappear altogether. With a fresh recruiting class, with a year under Hurley’s coaching style, with essentially the same core as last season, this was supposed to be the year in which UConn restored its winning ways.
It’s been two games—far too early to declare the season a lost cause. But one was an ugly win, the other an uglier loss. Postgame Wednesday night, it seemed like Hurley was thinking beyond the scope of just that game. It seemed like a realization that those losing years are not yet in the rearview mirror.
“Down three, there were chances to get the ball, a one-possession game, where we had people watching instead of fighting for their lives to get the defensive rebound,” Hurley said. “That’s a culture thing, that’s accepting losing, that’s being part of losing for a couple years and you start wearing it like underwear, like it’s in your bones. In a place like this, with the history it has, that’s hard to explain.”
Hurley is a fantastic head coach, and there’s little doubt he’s the man to restore the program to its former glory. This year’s recruiting class was excellent; next year’s, with the commitment of 6-foot-11 Javonte Brown-Ferguson on Wednesday, is looking even better. Kids want to play for Hurley, and clearly some potent value remains in the UConn basketball brand.
But we should also question the legitimacy of Hurley’s evaluation. Do three straight losing seasons really impact this year’s team? Can we really draw a line between past and present failures?
I say yes and no. Sports are as much a mental game as they are physical, and thus confidence and memory do play a huge role in a team’s success. It is fair to wonder if, as the Huskies clawed their way back into Wednesday’s game, those painful losses of recent seasons resurfaced in the minds of Vital, Gilbert and Carlton.
Had any of those guys played in a single NCAA tournament game in their UConn’s careers, they might’ve had full confidence that, even when trailing by 27 in the first half, they’d come back. A program like UConn doesn’t lose to Saint Joseph’s on its home floor. Instead, it’s easy to imagine that uncertainty and self-doubt, instilled by the last few seasons, inevitably crept into their minds.
It’s also important to remember the current UConn roster is still very much a Kevin Ollie creation. Four of the five starters were not recruited by Hurley, are not tailored to his system, are not necessarily his mold of players.
But at some level, we have to hold Hurley and his team accountable for the current product on the court, regardless of seasons prior. It’s a new year with a fresh start and higher expectations. It’s an opportunity for Vital and Gilbert to rewrite their legacies. When those doubts creep in, they should be used as motivation, not as the standard.
So how do you turn around a once-great basketball program? I don’t have the answer, but it begins with cutting the excuses. The Big East should certainly help—judging by next year’s recruits, it already has—but throwing in the towel on this season because of next year’s potential? That’s what we’ve been doing the past two years.
Here’s my suggestion: If the issue lies in the mindsets of veteran players, let the young guys play. In fact, Hurley himself acknowledged that on Wednesday:
“We need that infusion of youthful exuberance into the program right now,” Hurley said. “Some guys that haven’t been through the last couple years. It seems like a burden we’re carrying into games instead of just trying to change it.”
Yet Hurley has given very little leash to the younger players on the roster. Freshman Jalen Gaffney has played 17 total minutes in two games and has yet to make a field goal. Sophomores Sidney Wilson and Brendan Adams have shown flashes of brilliance in uneven minutes. Redshirt freshman Akok Akok was arguably the best player on the court on Wednesday not wearing a red jersey.
“What it takes, in a program you’re trying to turn around, is special people,” Hurley said. “People that really believe in themselves, people that believe they can change the course of the program and be the guy that brings UConn back. It’s a self-belief, a swagger, a confidence you have to have.”
There are already plenty of “special” players on this year’s roster, across classes. It’s been a brutal last three seasons in Storrs, and Wednesday night proved that the program hasn’t quite shed the weight of its recent disappointments. But those past results don’t have to dictate this season’s path.