Though it’s felt like an eternity, it’s been some 35-odd days since the sports world came to an abrupt stop. No NBA. No spring training. No NCAA tournaments. But that has not stopped Dan Hurley’s Huskies from prepping for the 2020-2021 season.
UConn announced Thursday the URI transfer guard Tyrese Martin was officially a Husky, nine days after he made his decision public on social media. Hurley said he was excited about the addition and noted his relationship foundation with Martin — stemming from Hurley’s recruiting efforts at Rhode Island — helped in a time where in-person and on-campus visits are not permitted.
“Obviously he fits the profile and the type of player we’re looking to bring into the program,” Hurley said of the 6-foot-6 guard when he talked to the media via a conference call Thursday afternoon. “He’s got the type of work ethic and the type of makeup in terms of his commitment level and having big, audacious goals as a player because certainly the coaches and players in the program, we all have those.”
The Huskies had lofty, but attainable, goals last season as they were dead-set on winning The American conference tournament before their return to the Big East. Of course, the spread of coronavirus prevented that, but much of last year’s hungry roster is intact.
“I think we got a really good mix,” Hurley said. “We return a number of guys, a number of rotation players, that played well for us last year and helped elevate things or have multiple years of experience with us.”
From last year’s squad, guys like James Bouknight, Jalen Gaffney and Isaiah Whaley will all be back next season. All three made big contributions and will help catch the new guys up. Andre Jackson and Jevonte Brown-Ferguson are the freshest faces to the program — outside of Martin — while guys like Richie Springs and R.J. Cole have been around the team, but will make their in-game debuts this fall. Springs, who Hurley raved about for his ability to rebound the ball, was a redshirt this past season while Cole was forced to sit as a transfer from Howard University.
“There’s going to be an infusion of a number of players who are new to the program, but we have a great core and base guys,” Hurley said.
Like Cole, Martin may be forced to sit out this season as a transfer. That is, of course, contingent on the NCAA’s decision on immediate eligibility for first-time transfers, which is expected to come in the later half of May. If not deemed eligible, he could apply for a waiver to start his remaining two years of eligibility right away.
“It probably is a different situation than R.J.,” Hurley said. “I think with the way our roster was shaped last year, it made a lot of sense for R.J., and he wanted the year to use the resources that a place like UConn has to make improvements physically before he stepped out there. Whereas I think that’s probably not where Tyrese’s mindset is at.”
Martin, who started all 30 games for the Rams as a sophomore last season and averaged 12.8 points and 7.1 rebounds, could help the mending Huskies if allowed to play this season. While Akok Akok (achilles) and Tyler Polley (ACL) are rehabbing well, according to Hurley, depth never hurts. Polley is expected to return to an impactful role, Hurley said. Meanwhile, Akok is off crutches, in a boot and using a “weightless contraption” that allows him to run on a treadmill. Hurley expects the rising redshirt-junior “to surprise people.”
Hurley was clear, however, that even though there is still an open scholarship, it will not be filled for the sake of filling it.
“I think we would most certainly, our preference with that scholarship would be something that could help us,” Hurley said. “But not at the expense of lowering our standards in terms of talent and culture fit.”
“We’re not playing fantasy basketball,” Hurley added. “It’s never been about trying to accumulate guys who have the most stars or impressed the most scouting service people. We’re looking obviously for talent, but then also to guys that are going to fit into the culture that we’ve been able to build in two years and can fit into a group and fill a role for a program that’s got a lot of momentum.”
Not all is going as planned for UConn as not even the Huskies could avoid day-to-day disruptions due to the pandemic. Players and coaches lose valuable time together to connect and build relationships, a cornerstone of UConn’s program, Hurley said. Instead of seeing each other at practice or meals, players and coaches connect via a Zoom video call once a week to “catch up” on personal matters while a weekly Webex video conference is used to start prep for the upcoming season. Hurley says they’ve been going over a “Big East opponent every week,” looking at things like roster compositions and play style.
Speaking about being with the team, Hurley said, “That’s the part of the job that I love the most and that part is bad right now.”
In lieu of on-campus visits for recruits, UConn has resorted to virtual meetings. Using the same software, the coaching staff makes video calls to recruits and their families to try and sell the UConn brand. Hurley says the strength of their recruiting is having players come to Storrs (“We’re not the fastest talkers, we don’t have the best sales pitch to kids”), but they’ve acclimated to the situation like everyone else.
And that is the thing — no school has avoided this. Every school from the top of the nation on down. Hurley recognizes this, and though it is far from ideal, there is still a season and a slate of new opponents to prepare for.
“The longer this goes on, the less of an opportunity we have to take steps as a program,” Hurley said. “This affects all programs, just looking at the way it affects us, we ended the season with a tremendous amount of momentum and we want to continue to build on that.”
Thumbnail photo by Eric Wang/The Daily Campus