'We’re all about ball': Dan Hurley, UConn unfazed by success and ready for NCAA title defense

Connecticut coach Dan Hurley speaks during the Big East NCAA college basketball media day, Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2023, at Madison Square Garden in New York. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)
Connecticut coach Dan Hurley speaks during the Big East NCAA college basketball media day, Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2023, at Madison Square Garden in New York. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

NEW YORK — Dan Hurley stepped to the table at Big East Media Day and before he could take a seat, he was asked a question.

“No championship ring, Dan?”

Hurley, the head coach of defending national champion UConn, decided to leave the bling at home, defying his wife. A bold move, to say the least.

After that question was popped and answered, Hurley didn’t reminisce about a summer of championship festivities, reflect on one of the most dominant NCAA tournament runs ever or tout his vaunted freshman recruiting class.

No, Hurley was immediately reminded about the last time he was in Madison Square Garden — March 10, 2023, where Marquette outlasted UConn, 70-68, in the Big East tournament semifinals.

“The last time I was in here, I didn’t win,” Hurley said. “That was probably the first thing I thought about [coming into MSG].

“That Big East tournament loss still stings,” he would later add. “Walking in here, it’s kind of eating away a little bit at the left side of my ribcage.”

None of this should come as a surprise to anyone who knows Hurley, whose star rose to national prominence during last season's aforementioned NCAA tournament run.

Even after torching Iona, St. Mary’s, Arkansas, Gonzaga, Miami and San Diego State by double figures and captivating the nation with his intensity, Dan Hurley is still Dan Hurley.

“One thing about Coach Hurley, no matter what happens, what he wins, he’s never going to change,” UConn center Donovan Clingan said. “He’s so hungry. He wants to keep winning, keep winning. That’s something that I’ve always loved and something that I think recruits need to know. We won the national championship and two days later he was back in the office working, recruiting. He’s such a hungry coach, it just makes us want to play for him and give him our all.”

Last season’s triumph was a long time coming for Hurley, however.

The son of Bob Hurley, the Hall of Fame coach of St. Anthony’s High School in Jersey City, New Jersey, and brother of Bobby Hurley, a two-time national champion as a player at Duke, Dan finally got his one shining moment in April.

“I’m 50 years old,” Hurley said. “My pursuits in basketball started as a player in high school, so it’s 35 years of my basketball life as a player in high school and college and as a coach at all levels, for me, I pursued that moment of elite status and doing something like that. Obviously, my brother had it as a player multiple times and was a lottery pick. My dad is a Hall of Famer. That was a very important moment for me, to climb that mountain and get the confidence that comes with a moment like that.”

Despite being the reigning national champion, UConn enters the season ranked No. 6 in the AP poll, receiving just two first-place votes and actually slotted a spot below fellow Big East program Marquette. As far as its own conference goes, UConn is pegged to finish third and received zero first-place votes.

Clingan, a 7-foot-2 sophomore center and potential 2024 NBA lottery pick, was the lone player to make a preseason Big East team (second). Alex Karaban, one of two returning starters from the title team, earned honorable mention.

Somehow, UConn is flying under the radar and has bulletin-board material already — as if Hurley needed it.

“It’s all a bunch of bull anyway,” Hurley said. “It doesn’t matter. Jordan Hawkins wasn’t picked on an all-conference team last year and led us through a dominant run and was a lottery pick. We’re all about ball, all about pursuing championships. We’ll come into the season, maybe with more of a chip on our shoulder — maybe two chips — that’s why I think the program has been as successful as it’s been.”

There are some legitimate questions about the Huskies as they look to become the first school since Florida to repeat as national champions. UConn is tasked with replacing Hawkins, Adama Sanogo and Andre Jackson Jr., who all made the jump to the NBA.

Clingan, who likely won’t pack the same scoring punch that Sanogo did last season, is arguably the most important piece. Hurley touted the sophomore’s impact beyond the box score, highlighting his ability to play vertically, avoid clogging the paint on offense and be an impact player in the post defensively.

HOUSTON, TEXAS - APRIL 03: The Connecticut Huskies celebrates winning the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament Final Four championship game against the San Diego State Aztecs at NRG Stadium on April 03, 2023 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
The Connecticut Huskies celebrate winning the NCAA men's tournament championship game against the San Diego State Aztecs at NRG Stadium on April 3, 2023, in Houston. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images) (Mitchell Layton via Getty Images)

Tristen Newton, named to the Cousy Award Watch List last week, will be leaned on to take on a bigger, more consistent role in the offense — not unlike what he did in spurts last season, including a 19-point double-double in the title clincher over SDSU. Newton is just one of three returning upperclassmen for the Huskies.

Finally, Stephon Castle, a five-star recruit and projected first-round NBA Draft pick, will need to adjust relatively quickly to the college game. Hurley called Castle the “most physically ready freshman” he’s ever coached and “as talented as advertised,” but has found flaws in the 6-foot-6 guard’s game

“These big-time freshmen who come into college basketball, they don’t need hype, they don’t need branding, they need a coach,” Hurley said. “They need a coach who is going to help them reach their potential and make them aware of all of the things that he's doing wrong. He’s got a big target on him. Players are going to be gunning for him. Teams are going to be gunning for him. I’m getting him ready.”

Clingan, Newton and Castle are joined by Karaban and Rutgers transfer Cam Spencer to create a starting unit that has the potential to, at the very least, match last year’s squad, which was in the top 34 in both scoring and defense.

“The unique thing with this team is that you could have five double-figure scorers who start,” Hurley said. “You may have a cluster of guys in this 12-14 range. I don’t think there’s a lot of teams in the country that have four guys that at this level could be 13-14 point-per-game scorers.”

The Huskies will have a short window to see if everything breaks right early. UConn’s first major test of the year comes against No. 1 Kansas on Dec. 1 in Lawrence. It’s the first of a four-game stretch where Hurley’s squad will play three top-tier programs (UNC on Dec. 5, Gonzaga on Dec. 15). All three games are either on the road or at a neutral site.

Conference play begins less than a week after.

“We’re fully aware that people want what we have,” Hurley said. “We had the most successful year in the country last year. If people really know how we work, we won’t be caught sleepwalking, I promise you that.”