Home Sports Dan Hurley ‘pumped’ UConn is back in the Big East

Dan Hurley ‘pumped’ UConn is back in the Big East

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Just discussing what November may be like, you could hear the excitement in Dan Hurley’s voice.

The potential he sees. The possibilities that exist. The promise that UConn returning to the Big East provides. It’s no wonder at the end of every Zoom meeting with his team, he asks his players if they’re ready for the powerhouse league.

“He’s pumped,” rising senior Tyler Polley told The Post in a phone interview.

Even during the summer, with the novel coronavirus pandemic delaying summer workouts, the buzz is back in Storrs, Conn., and for good reason. UConn is rejoining the Big East after seven wayward seasons in the American Athletic Conference, and it will do so with the kind of talented roster the program was known for before leaving the league.

“People can’t wait for the season to start,” Hurley said. “Connecticut basketball is the professional sports team of the state. … Really it’s like the perfect storm for us. We’re making great progress, and we’re back in a league our fans can identify with and be excited about the matchups. If there’s no fans allowed at the games, then they may break down the doors.”

The Huskies closed the season winning 9 of 11 games to finish 19-12 in the virus-shortened season — their most wins since the 2015-16 campaign — and return two of their top three scorers in All-AAC freshman selection James Bouknight and Polley. They add sit-out transfer R.J. Cole of Howard, a lead guard who averaged 21.4 points and 6.4 assists in 2018-19, and the Big East’s second-ranked recruiting class featuring four-star recruits Adam Sanogo and Andre Jackson. Throw in the expected January return of impressive forward Akok Akok, who is progressing well from a ruptured left Achilles tendon, and the roster is dripping with pro potential.

Dan Hurley
Dan HurleyAP

“We’re positioned well to look more like UConn should look next year,” said Hurley, the former Wagner and Rhode Island coach.

It should be noted that though the basketball program seems to be headed in a positive direction. The school will be eliminating men’s cross country, men’s swimming and driving, men’s tennis and women’s rowing teams due to budget cuts related to the virus following the 2020-21 academic year. There will also be a 15 percent cut in the athletic department budget and the reduction of select scholarships, president Thomas Katsouleas announced.

About the only thing that has gone wrong for UConn’s basketball team this offseason is the virus, which everyone is dealing with. It has forced Hurley and his staff to coach from afar, meeting with the team up to three times per week on Zoom.

To prepare for the Big East, Hurley is having his players watch film of their new conference opponents and study scouting reports. They are also getting a mental workout, required to read “Why the Best Are the Best,” by former NBA and college coach Kevin Eastman, watch documentaries and listen to podcasts about racial inequality, and hear from guest speakers like Caron Butler.

“We’re doing things that teams aren’t with these meetings,” Polley said. “I think we’re going to be ready. We’re trying to get a leg up on the competition.”

The return to the Big East, announced last June, has already paid dividends in recruiting circles. Jackson and Sanogo may not be Huskies otherwise. But now comes the hard part, winning at this level. UConn failed to finish higher than fifth in the AAC the past six years, but it is in a much better place entering Hurley’s third season. The past two years gave him and his staff the chance to create their own culture and upgrade the talent base. The Huskies aren’t planning to tiptoe into their new stomping grounds, the league he called “maybe the best” in the nation.

“We hope,” Hurley said, “to make it even better.”

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