Hurley won't let last season fade away

Published on Monday, 14 June 2021 17:38

Journal Inquirer

STORRS - Dan Hurley’s master plan of motivation is nearly complete.

The ear worm he had hoped would find its way into the brains of those around the UConn men’s basketball program is en route.

The T-shirts have arrived. The signage is up around the offices and the practice courts. The mantra is buzzing in the minds of all the players and coaches.

It’s hard not to take a step in the Werth Center, the Huskies’ on-campus home, without seeing the numbers “45:07.”

It’s hard not to go through a daily task without someone whispering, or more likely shouting, the digits in your ear.

Hurley equates the outcome of his experiment to the Jim Carrey movie “The Number 23” in which the main character runs into seemingly non-random occurrences of the figure everywhere.

“That 45:07 is like implanted in their brains,” Hurley said during an outdoor press conference Friday afternoon. “People are coming on the unofficial visit and asking why it’s on the scoreboard, why it’s on shirts, why it’s on peoples’ laptops.”

It’s there, to commemorate the final 45 minutes and seven seconds of the Huskies 2020-21 season.

Hurley doesn’t want any player or staff member who participated in that span to forget it.

UConn, despite losing star James Bouknight for a long stretch, was a rather successful 15-8 in the COVID-shortened season and returned to the NCAA Tournament after a five-year absence.

But it’s the final five minutes and seven seconds of its loss to Creighton in the Big East Tournament semifinal, and the entirety of its loss to Maryland in the first round of the NCAA Tournament - a game in which the Huskies shot 32.3 percent, its worst shooting effort in an NCAA game since 1964 - that Hurley is forcing everyone to remember.

He doesn’t want to see those minutes replayed live at any point in the upcoming season.

“You need things that are driving you,” Hurley said. “These guys are at a lift and somebody doesn’t want to finish their last set on the bench, somebody’s got to be in there yelling, ‘Forty-five-oh-seven!’

“You don’t want to watch film as a coach on July 3 at 6 o’clock because you want to go food shopping for a barbecue the next day? Forty-five-oh-seven. You need that.”

Hurley and the Huskies are already busy murmuring the phrase in preparation for the 2021-22 campaign. All of the players are on campus taking summer classes, while going through hour-long practices four days a week.

They’re also spending another four hour each week with strength coach Gavin Roberts.

And they’re doing much of that while sporting a blue T-shirt with a UConn logo and the numbers “45:07” emblazoned across the chest.

Back to cooking

Nearly everyone who knows the man was thrilled that Akok Akok was able to return to the Huskies last season after tearing his Achilles tendon Feb. 16, 2020. But few recognized the player who took the court for the Huskies in 2020-21.

The 6-foot-9 standout from Manchester, New Hampshire, just wasn’t quite himself. He played in seven games, gathering a total of nine points, three rebounds and one blocked shot.

“Coming back last year, even though he was cleared, it was a very difficult situation,” Hurley said. “Because you get cleared at 11 months but you’re not back to yourself or better than you were until the 18-month mark. I think at times he had a hard time dealing with the reality of that. And as coaches that was a tough thing to manage.”

But to see Akok on the court these days, Hurley says, is to see the player who arrived on UConn’s campus itching to dominate.

“He’s got that same look in his eye that he had when he got here, that self-belief, that hunger, that player that’s on a mission to reach these big goals,” Hurley said.

The injury appears to be almost fully behind Akok.

“He looks great. He’s moving around the court the way he did. This is a big year for him,” Hurley said. “And he’s part of a frontcourt that has a chance to be one of the best in the country.”

Vaccination news

As a team, the Huskies are nearly completely vaccinated against COVID-19.

“I think we’re close to 100 percent,” Hurley said. “We’re on like waiting periods, the two weeks out from the second one, and I think we’ll be 100 percent with the entire staff and the players.”

The complete change of lifestyle from a year ago has made Hurley smile quite often lately.

“Getting a hug from Akok, and a handshake,” Hurley said. “It’s been fist bumps and awkward social distancing, so it feels good.”

Recruiting ramping up

The Huskies have been welcoming numerous recruits to campus in recent days, and have a full summer booked for interested observers. It’s a start contrast to the quiet, and very odd, summer of 2020.

“The amount of kids visiting campus, the recruiting on the road, and the practice calendar, it’s almost like we’re condensing the 18 months we’ve been not functioning normally and condensing it into these two months in June and July,” Hurley said. “The calendar is crazy busy. And I’ve never been more excited in my life to be this crazy busy.”

Hurley is pleased with the players he’s brought in so far, but doesn’t want to rest on his laurels.

“What we’ve done up to ’21 has put us in a great spot, but to competing for championships at the level we want to, we have to keep stacking top, top recruiting classes,” Hurley said.

Name, image, likeness

The swift passage of NIL (Name-Image-Likeness) laws around the nation, which shortly will include Connecticut assuming Gov. Ned Lamont signs the bill as expected, will change some aspects of college life for some players as they are allowed to profit from their “brand.”

Hurley believes the new NCAA regulations could mean some players stay longer in college as opposed to jumping to the professional ranks too early.

“I think that’s a real thing. I think that’s got a chance, especially at a place like this,” Hurley said. “You’ve got just the one, major professional sports team with the WNBA. Beyond that, you don’t have major professional sports here. Are there going to be more opportunities with NIL for college athletes at the University of Connecticut? Probably. Would they be more inclined to do an extra year? Maybe.”

Husky bites

Hurley on Bouknight’s NBA draft prospects: “Once you get past five, I think you have to really, seriously think about taking him.” … What does senior Tyrese Martin have to work on this offseason? “For Tyrese, it’s just making 3’s. Shooting 37, 38 percent from the 3-point line, and working on his finishing at the rim,” Hurley said. … Among the days Hurley is looking forward to most this season is “First Night,” the school’s annual party to begin the season. “We all miss the fans,” Hurley said. “You have no idea how much the fans mean to sports. We don’t need fans throwing (crap) but … I can’t wait for the fans to come back.”

Posted in The Bristol Press, UConn on Monday, 14 June 2021 17:38. Updated: Monday, 14 June 2021 17:40.