By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — UConn fifth-year head coach Dan Hurley is part of an iconic east coast basketball family, and he understands the magnitude of delivering the Huskies men’s basketball program to its first NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 in nine years.
For a UConn program that’s won four national titles in the last 24 years (1999, 2004, 2011, 2014) — more than any school in that span and tied for sixth most in Division 1 history — Hurley understands that getting back to the second weekend of the NCAAT aligns with expectations at the Big East program.
Huskies coaching predecessors in Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun and former UConn star Kevin Ollie both won national titles (Calhoun the first three, and Ollie in 2013-14), and though Hurley has the program in its third consecutive NCAAT, his previous two teams were both upset in NCAAT first-round games to double-digit seeds (10-seed Maryland in ’20-21, and 12-seed New Mexico State in ’21-22).
Had then-5th-seeded UConn defeated the Aggies last season, the Huskies would have met then-4th-seeded Arkansas in the Round of 32.
Just more than a year later, that Arkansas-UConn matchup is set to go down on Thursday night (6:15 p.m. CT, CBS) in the West Region semifiinals (a.k.a. the Sweet 16) in Las Vegas, Nev.
While it’s too soon to suggest 4-seed UConn is better then the rest of the field of 16 remaining teams, the Huskies inched closer to making their case by handily disposing of 13-seed Iona (87-63) and 5-seed St. Mary’s (70-55) with 8-seed Arkansas now standing in their way.
“Thrilled obviously to be here,” Hurley said Wednesday. “Excited to play in T-Mobile, fabulous arena. Obviously really exciting, the four programs here. Should be an unbelievable challenge versus an Arkansas team that was playing like the top-10 team that they were projected to be in the preseason.”
Hurley played at Seton Hall (1991-96) when the Pirates competed in the old Big East conference before it was realigned. His older bother Bobby Hurley is a Duke legend who won back-to-back national titles in ’90-91 and ’91-92a s aplayer and is currently the head coach at Arizone State. His father is Hall of Fame high school coach Bob Hurley, Sr., who ammassed more than 1,000 wings while guiding the now-closed St. Anthony High School in Jersey City, N.J., to 26 state championships.
Here’s more from Hurley during his Wednesday NCAAT press conference …
On the rebounding matchup with Arkansas: “It’s going to be — obviously a part of this game is going to be played in a really physical way on the backboard. For us, I don’t know that we have maybe quite the same level of athleticism. So we’ve got to be more fundamental in terms of putting a body on a body, being in inside position, and then being really physical at that point. But we pride ourselves on winning the rebounding battle as they do and it’s going to be a war when the ball goes up tomorrow on the glass, no doubt.”
On Arkansas’ off-season recruiting haul that makes up 11 of the Hogs’ 13 scholarship players: “Yeah, they’ve had tremendous acquisitions, the three five-star NBA lottery or first-round pick level talents in Smith and Black and in Walsh. And then they seem to be getting some of the best portal players that are available. So I’m obviously very familiar with the Mitchell twins with my Rhode Island history, and following their careers pretty closely.
On differing recruiting philosophies and similarities comparing UConn and Arkansas: “So we probably go about things in a different way in terms of the way we probably build our team. But I think our teams both kind of play in a similar way in that we both play incredibly hard. Both coaches coach with a lot of passion and so some similarities, some differences.”
On Arkansas freshman guard Nick Smith, Jr.: “He’s really an electrifying player to watch, just in terms of his abilities with the ball, just how twitchy he is with the ball. Obviously his size, his length. I saw him a bunch in high school so we know what he’s capable in terms of the 3-point shooting and perimeter shooting. We’re obviously preparing for him like we’ve got to guard one of the best scoring guards in the country.”
On two-time All Big East first-team selection Adama Sanogo: “Great family background. Comes from a great pedigree. And I think he works so hard at everything that he does. I think innately he just feels like he’s got a lot of confidence because he knows he’s putting in tremendous work. And he’s had a heck of a career. He’s getting to a Final Four. He’s advancing in this tournament further. If he does that, we’ll be talking about being one of the all-time great players in UConn history. He’s at the doorsteps of that. So, I just think he’s grown and he’s comfortable in his own skin. And I think he just believes in himself.”
On UConn shooter-scorer Jordan Hawkins: “The best thing about Jordan is obviously his skills and his talents and abilities, but his parents, he’s got great parents. And they have held him kind of accountable all his life. And they allow us to coach him. They don’t make excuses for him. They’ve done just a hell of a job raising their kid to not make excuses or blame coaches or blame other people for their struggles. And you add his type of NBA-level talent, with that type of mindset that was instilled by his parents. And now it’s hard for me to screw it up.”
On the Huskies dealing with NCAAT pressure: “We were confident in the depth of the team. We go nine, 10 deep. And our bench helped us win a lot of games this year. Obviously, too, I think when you’re UConn and you’re playing in the first round of the tournament, maybe even the second round, there’s a lot of pressure on you, the pressure of the brand that you carry. So I think we’re maybe a little bit uptight going into those first and second round games, and hopefully, some of that pressure has been alleviated and we can go out tomorrow and let it rip. I don’t think we can afford to have a slow start versus these guys with the way that they play.”