Intensity, alter egos and ‘Benjamin Button’: Dan Hurley’s quest to become king of two in a row at UConn

STORRS, Conn. — It is 1 p.m. on a dismal January afternoon and, aside from a few managers, Gampel Pavilion is empty. The Connecticut players have finished reviewing film but have yet to shuffle in from the practice facility across the street. Dan Hurley stands a few steps behind halfcourt. He’s wearing gray sweats, a hoodie, a UConn beanie and a pair of reflector sunglasses. He would like it noted that he wore the sunglasses “way before Coach Prime.’’

Hurley starts launching halfcourt shots, cursing under his breath when the first few attempts clank off the backboard or, worse, airball short of the basket entirely. The Huskies stream in, clomping down the stairs to the court, and Hurley, still in his getup, keeps shooting.

Finally, the ball swishes through the net and Hurley shouts, to no one in particular and everyone on hand, “Who’s the king of two in a row?” Ever obedient, star center Donovan Clingan yells back, “You are, Coach.”

Hurley never swishes back-to-back shots. That doesn’t mean he can’t be king.

It has been 17 years since a college basketball team has won consecutive national championships, the pursuit of back-to-back coronations becoming increasingly elusive as the sport dynamics have shifted. Not only has no team matched Florida’s two-year run, no defending champion has so much as carried the No. 1 ranking into February since the Gators.

Until now. Until UConn. A year after dusting NCAA Tournament opponents by an average of 20 points per game en route to the 2023 title, the Huskies are potentially, and frighteningly, even more capable.

That UConn team limped through the end of December and into January, losing five of six before finding its footing; this UConn team spent five games without Clingan, arguably its most critical player, and dropped not a game. The Huskies are 23-2, have won 13 in a row and rank fourth in the NET rankings. They’ve held their last 10 opponents to an average 60 points per game. All five starters average double figures, and they can go a reliable eight deep.

All this when such dynasty building is meant to be impossible, when the NBA Draft and the transfer portal rob teams of roster continuity, and name, image and likeness opportunities allegedly destroy locker room harmony. The Huskies were hardly immune to the sport’s passing fancies. Three of UConn’s players turned pro after last season, and another transferred out. The Huskies brought Cam Spencer from Rutgers to the team and promptly made him their starting point guard, and one player (Clingan), who has a marketing deal with Dunkin, has profited off his NIL far more than his teammates.

Yet here are the Huskies, in position to be the kings of two in a row.

Parked off to the side of the court, an easel holds a poster board with a picture of the Big East regular-season trophy. The Huskies cart the easel everywhere they go, changing the picture depending on what trophy they are pursuing. Earlier it depicted the Empire Classic trophy, followed by the Seattle Tip-Off Classic trophy. At some point, the conference tournament trophy will make an appearance, followed by the NCAA regional and so forth.

The poster, however, looks like it went through a bad day with airport baggage handlers. It’s dented in the middle. There’s even a small chunk missing at the bottom.

Hurley will tell you that he is more Zen, if not less superstitious. He walks into his office, sidestepping a blue-and-white fleece shirt still in its packaging. It has sat on the floor in the middle of the hallway for weeks because the Huskies have not lost since someone dumped it there. Hurley admits the foolishness of this while carrying an Echo Go+, which looks like a lava lamp cross-pollinated with a mini blender. Hurley presses a button on the gizmo that retails for $250 and blue lights swirl, creating alleged hydrogen-heavy water that is said to reduce oxidative stress, improve gut health, sleep and energy, all while helping to reverse the signs of aging. Later Hurley sends a text, extolling the virtues of the sensory deprivation tank he visits for 90 minutes, and how it’s helped with his “mental reset.’’

He says this mostly tongue in cheek – “I’m f—— Benjamin Button,’’ he jokes as he chugs the water – but not entirely. He does believe he has found an inner peace and harmony that has helped cut down his on-court histrionics. Hurley has been hit with technicals this season, but has yet to be ejected from a game. Progress.

Except there’s the poster board. The dents, nicks and missing chunks came courtesy of Hurley whizzing a ball at the picture when his UConn players did not practice to the standards he deems necessary to win.

Asked if Hurley is more intense this year, pursuing a second championship, or last year aiming for his first, neither Clingan nor Alex Karaban allow the question to be completed before answering. “Oh, this is way worse,’’ Karaban says. “He’s way harder on us this year. The intensity in practice, it’s just through the roof every day.’’

It is hard to gauge the difference, since a Hurley-run practice is never a picnic. There have never been scheduled water breaks or even opportunities to sit down. The Huskies, in fact, are not permitted to bend over at the waist when they’re tired. Hurley offers up some physiological reasoning, about expanded chests improving breathing, but then he gets to the heart of it. “Weakness,’’ he says. “That’s just a sign of weakness.’’ When Clingan, returning after nearly a month off, begins to bend over, Gavin Roberts, the team’s director of sports performance, rushes to his side. “No, no, no,’’ he says. “Don’t do that.’’

Minor infractions merit banishment to stair runs, the punishment so indoctrinated in the Huskies that when Hurley lays into Youssouf Singare for bad defense, Singare just turns and runs the steps without even being told. And despite buzzwords plastered in the practice facility declaring one of UConn’s tenets as “mindful communication,” there is little mind to how things are communicated. Were the Huskies to position a swear jar in the building, they’d likely not need a collective to fund their NIL.

Elsewhere there might be wiggle room gifted to veteran players who helped you win a title a year ago. Here, there is less tolerance for even the smallest of transgressions. Hurley pounces on Clingan for failing to cover a shooter in transition. “I know you’re mad at me,’’ he yells. “Don’t be mad at me for being honest.’’ After a bad entry pass from Karaban, Hurley covers his eyes for an entire minute, too pained to watch as practice continues. Stephon Castle, the consensus ninth-best freshman, is chastised for a bad pass, lazy defense, poor decision-making and shot selection. After a bad defensive possession, associate head coach Kimani Young laments, “We never make plays on defense. Never. When are we going to?” The Huskies, it should be noted, are 18th in KenPom defensive rankings.

Finally, as the blue team (starters) gets smoked by the gray team – with chip off the block/walk-on Andrew Hurley goading the starters “Whipping that ass, blue,’’– the Hurley in charge shouts, “Champions don’t do that sh–.’’ In his office later, Hurley sits on a sofa and plays armchair psychiatrist. He thinks maybe he’s so demanding as a coach because he’s trying to make up for what he failed to achieve as a player. He also digs into the psychoanalysis of what winning a title does to a man. “When you haven’t done it, you can’t tell me you know you can do it,” Hurley says. “You can think you have a great team, but you can’t be 1,000 percent confident that you can coach a team through six teams in the hardest tournament in the country and win. Now for us, we know deep down as a program, we can. I go home, I look at pictures in my basement and you think about how great it was. But then you also think, ‘Man, I just want to do it again.’”

What’s notable is how the Huskies respond to him. Sit in enough college basketball practices and it becomes easy to read body language. Slumped shoulders, eyes cast to the floor and backs turned are the universal signs that the coach might still be yelling, but the accused no longer hears what he’s saying.

The Huskies take Hurley’s heat without so much as a grimace. They either beat him to the punch and own the mistake before he points it out, or stare him dead in the eye as he delivers his withering evaluation. They run up and down the stairs and jump back into work. Over and over again.

The Huskies don’t merely put up with Hurley’s intensity; they crave it.

Karaban is down three TVs. Video games, it should be noted, do not always behave the way you intend, which is especially troubling if you have an analytical mind that prefers order and proper response. Karaban has such a mind. He is the son of a Ukrainian immigrant mother who has a doctorate from Northeastern, and a Belarussian immigrant father who works as a software engineer. Karaban likes math and is chasing what UConn calls an ‘individualized major,’’ wherein he has combined three majors – computer science, sports management and statistics – into one hellacious, numbers-focused pursuit.

So nerdy is Karaban – his mother made him revisit UConn because she thought the first tour didn’t have enough info about academics – that Hurley worried “his socks would turn yellow’’ when placed in front of crowds of angry basketball fans. In the first game of his career, Karaban scored 13, yanked down four boards, and dished out three assists. His socks were just fine. “It’s like he’s a superhero, or something,’’ Hurley marvels. “Like he has an alter ego.’’ Said alter ego surfaced this summer, when the misbehaving video games failed to do what Karaban intended. He tried to throw the remote at the wall but his aim isn’t as good as his shooting stroke. The thing went through the TV, clocking the screen so badly that it became unwatchable. “Yeah, it happened three times,’’ Karaban says sheepishly.

After losing to UConn earlier this month, St. John’s head coach Rick Pitino went on a classic misdirection rant about the foibles of the NCAA enforcement process, its struggles to properly govern NIL and the impossible roster churn that the portal presents. “You can’t build programs and culture,’’ the Hall of Fame coach concluded, echoing a refrain heard a lot this season as teams struggle to find continuity.

The Huskies would like a word. “We all try to emulate Coach’s style,’’ says Tristen Newton. “No fat ruts, that’s what he tells us. You can’t eat and get comfortable. We’re all on that same page.’’

Did they only get to said page thanks to Hurley’s stiff-arm? The Huskies will tell you no, that they came to Storrs from varied directions but each in search of what he delivered. Newton is a one-time unheralded recruit who had but one college offer – East Carolina – and opted to leave after his coach was fired. He liked UConn for its singularity of focus – he laments that the nearest Chick Fil-A is 30 minutes away – and recognized that Hurley would push him out of his comfort zone. “I’m more laid-back,’’ he says. “I needed to be pushed.’’

Karaban’s parents used to shoo him outdoors in the Massachusetts’ winters to play basketball. Spencer is a Hurley mini-me, who cusses himself out over mistakes to the point that the coach tells him to calm down, and Clingan, a delightfully kind, ego-less star, lost his mom at 14 and was raised by a single dad who works as a utility worker. He understands the idea of hard work and sacrifice. “You have to be a kid who wants coaching, old-school coaching, like people who will squeeze every absolute ounce out of a player,” he says. “Not everybody wants that. They say they do, but they really don’t.”

Hurley is neither the first nor the only coach to key in on what works for him and recruit to that fit. Jay Wright memorably pivoted his entire recruiting philosophy after a 2009 Final Four run turned into a dismal 13-19 season three years later. Matt Painter regrouped so entirely that he now asks recruits to take personality assessments to ensure that they suit him. But it is, to Pitino’s point, getting harder to build a base. The Huskies have been fairly fortunate. Only four players in the last two years have left, allowing the staff to use the portal to fill needs and not restock wholesale. Of the three transfers on the current roster – Newton, Spencer and Hassan Diarra (Texas A&M), only Spencer will visit campus for one year.

But it’s not like UConn’s road has been without issue. Castle missed six games with a knee injury, slowing the freshman phenom’s start. Then Clingan, who battled foot problems in the preseason, exited a game against Seton Hall with an injury to the same foot. “What was I thinking?” Hurley says. “Oh, sh–.” Fair reaction. Clingan may not garner the same attention as Zach Edey, but he is as critical to the Huskies as Edey is to Purdue. The 7-footer draws natural attention inside, creating open shots for the wings, and is a defensive vacuum.

Clingan went back to his room feeling much the same as his coach. His foot throbbed for a good three or four days, every step feeling like he was walking on a bed of needles. He was terrified his season was over. When doctors said instead that he would only need a handful of weeks to recover, the sophomore nearly erupted with relief. Clingan is, by nature, a giver, and the attention he received as the returning key cog to a national championship team in his home state (he’s from Bristol) did not always fit snugly. “He’s the most unselfish person I’ve ever met,” says Karaban, his roommate. “He’s always looking to help you, with rides, getting you food, buying you stuff. He hates receiving stuff.” That, no doubt, added to his rush to return from the preseason injury. He admits now that he rushed his recovery, starting back to work when he still had some lingering pain, which made him less productive early in the season than he hoped to be.

This time, he vowed to be a more patient patient. He followed the methodical plan, while also using the break to streamline his body. He cut out late-night snacks and exchanged sports drinks for water, leaning out his frame. “I tried to cheer on the bench, and not jump,’’ he says with a laugh. “It was a long four weeks.’’

Around the country, top-ranked teams with fewer problems lost bad games, road games, home games and close games. The Huskies upped Samson Johnson’s minutes and even rotated Karaban to the five to cover for Clingan’s absence.

They didn’t lose a game.

Donovan Clingan says he rushed his return from a preseason foot injury. (G Fiume / Getty Images)

Somewhere between chastising Clingan for his transition defense and insisting that the entire organization will fail because of one errant pass, Hurley goes to midcourt and starts heaving shots again. This is not entirely out of character. Lost in the translation of how hard Hurley rides his team is how much fun he has with them. He hops into drills, smack talks, and cuts the tension with one-line zingers that leave the players covering their mouths with their jerseys so as not to get in trouble for laughing.

To wit: He has decided sophomore Apostolos Roumoglou resembles a James Bond villain. When the extraordinarily chatty Roumoglou protests a foul call, Hurley barks at him. “Hey, GoldenEye, get over here.’”

Says Clingan, “I swear sometimes he says funny things so you laugh and then he can yell at you for laughing.’’ He’s asked if this is a form of entrapment. “Yeah, exactly,’’ he says. “Entrapment.’’

So when, mid-rant, Hurley stops to hurl halfcourt shots, no one seems surprised. They just wait. Hurley swishes a shot and yells, ‘Who’s the king of two in a row?’” At least four people yell back, “You are.”

The follow-up clanks off the front of the rim.

So close, but not yet quite king.

(Illustration: Daniel Goldfarb / The Athletic; photos: Dylan Buell, Zach Bolinger, Rich Graessle / Getty Images)