Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
Jay Wright expects UConn to be ‘even better’ as Huskies shoot for NCAA Tournament in Dan Hurley’s third season
By ADAM ZAGORIA Jay Wright has watched UConn make steady improvement in Dan Hurley’s first two seasons as coach.
After the Wildcats crushed the Huskies by 23 points in Hurley’s first season two years ago at Madison Square Garden, Villanova pulled out a 61-55 victory last season at Wells Fargo Center.
Now with UConn set to re-enter the Big East for the 2020-21 season, Wright expects the Huskies to be “even better” as they learn Hurley’s system.
“We’ve been able to play them the last couple of years and it was very obvious the first year we played them,” Wright said Wednesday on a conference call. “The first year was the first time he had the group and then you could see the second year they were starting to get it. They came into our place and almost beat us at our place. It was a great game, two closely matched teams.
“But you could say they were starting to get Danny’s style of play and I just assume this year, the third year that he’s got his group together, that they’re going to be even better. They took us to the wire last year and this year I anticipate it’s going to be the same when they’re in the Big East.”
The Big East schedule isn’t out yet, but Wright said he expects it “soon.” When it does come out, Villanova, a preseason top-2 or 3 team, will twice face UConn, a potential NCAA Tournament team.
“Obviously, one of our goals is to compete in the NCAA Tournament,” said Hurley, who took Rhode Island to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments before taking the UConn job in 2018. “We want to compete at a high level in the Big East, and eventually get to the point where we’re competing for the national championship and the Big East championship, that’s what we do here.”
Wright, who has led Villanova to two of the last four NCAA championships, says it’s “awesome” that UConn is back in the Big East.
“The metropolitan area is still very very important to the Big East,” Wright said. “Madison Square Garden is still obviously very important to the Big East. The metropolitan area. Northeastern basketball, I always compare to the SEC in football, is very important. And they strengthen that for us. You gotta give Providence a lot of credit. They carried it for several years with St. John’s and Seton Hall and now you add Connecticut in there and you got that Northeastern flair back really strong again and I think that’s really what the Big East is about.”
Entering Hurley’s third year, UConn is projected to finish near the top of the Big East along with Villanova, Creighton, Seton Hall and Providence.
Hurley likes his team, but doesn’t want his guys getting complacent.
“We just want to take another big step in the program and continue to make progress,” Hurley said. “People are going to pick us relatively high in a new league but we’re not going to get seduced into thinking that we’ve arrived. We’ve got to show up.”
Sophomore guard James Bouknight of Brookyn figures to be the main man for UConn after averaging 13.4 points and 4.1 rebounds as a freshman. Hurley says he’s finally buying into the team concept.
“He wants to be the next man up here,” Hurley told Jon Rothstein of the 6-foot-5 Bouknight. “He’s got a great understanding of the moment. Now, he’s got to take advantage of it.”
He added: “He understands the moment that’s at hand right now,” Hurley said of Bouknight. “He’s got a real sense of what’s at stake right now. We’re joined at the hip. We’re not here just to serve in just his interests as he chases his dream in getting to the NBA. We’re in this thing together and we both know that the only way we’re going to get what we both want is by winning.”
Hurley also praised Bouknight for showing younger players like freshman wing Andre Jackson how to play with “intensity.”
Still, Hurley said 4-5 other players have the ability to score in double-figures in any given game, including Howard transfer R.J. Cole and Rhode Island transfer Tyrese Martin.
As a sophomore at Howard, Cole appeared in all 34 games, starting 33, and averaging 21.4 points, 4.1 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.8 steals, with a 2.0 assist-to-turnover ratio en route to being named the MEAC Player of the Year after leading the conference in scoring for a second straight season.
“R.J. is a tremendous offensive player,” Hurley, the former Seton Hall guard and onetime Rutgers assistant coach, said earlier this year of the Linden, N.J. native. “I compare him to a quarterback who gets the ball out on time. He just sees the floor, is a tremendous pick-and-roll, ball-screen player. Tremendous court vision and just very, very efficient offensive player that I think has the ability to make everyone around him better because of the way that he sees the floor, just how efficient he is in terms of how he uses his dribble.
Martin, meantime, recently got a waiver to play this season after transferring, but has recently been hampered by a quad strain. He averaged averaged 12.8 points and 7.1 rebounds last season.
“He’s so talented, he can handle the ball, rebounds at a high level for a guard and shoot it much better than he’s been able to show,” James Johns, Martin’s AAU coach, said when he committed. The biggest thing is improving his assist/turnover ratio and getting his 3-point percentage a little higher.
“I think that will come with an understanding where his shots come from within the offense so he takes good shots. I think being at UConn and continuing to develop gives him a chance to be a pro, which for him is the end goal. It’s an opportunity to take care of his mom and sisters.”
Overall, Hurley says his team is “more athletic, more physical and taller” than last year.
“We will have the ability to close games and make winning plays down the stretch,” he said.
And to test themselves night in and night out in the Big East.
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Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.