Only four years ago, UConn basketball appeared to be in good hands. The Huskies, led by Shabazz Napier, had just won their fourth national title in 16 years, during Kevin Ollie’s second season as head coach. Sure, Jim Calhoun was gone, and sure, UConn was stuck in the American Athletic Conference, but the program’s status as a national power seemed secure.
How times have changed.
In the four seasons since then, UConn has gone 75-61 and made only one NCAA Tournament, losing in the second round. This past campaign, Ollie’s team went 14-18 an finished eighth in the AAC. That was more than enough to cost the once-coveted coach his job.
That’s the backdrop for UConn’s announcement Thursday that Rhode Island coach Dan Hurley will take over as the Huskies’ next headman. According to ESPN, Hurley chose a six-year deal at UConn over competing offers from Pittsburgh and Rhode Island.
— UConn Huskies (@UConnHuskies) March 22, 2018
In some ways, UConn seems like a highly appealing job for an up-and-coming coach like Hurley. The Huskies have a record over the past 30 years that rivals almost anyone in the country. They have won several titles in recent memory. They have famous NBA emissaries such as Ray Allen, Kemba Walker and Richard Hamilton. All of those things should help Hurley’s recruiting and fundraising efforts and give UConn fans hope that their team has sunny days ahead.
The problem is, pedigree is about the only thing Hurley and the Huskies can lean on at this point. More and more as time goes, it seems that UConn’s fate was sealed when it was left out of conference realignment earlier this decade. When the old Big East broke up, most of the conference’s powers landed somewhere safe. Syracuse, Notre Dame, Louisville and Pittsburgh joined the ACC. West Virginia leapt to the Big 12. Villanova, Georgetown, Marquette and others formed the new Big East. Even Rutgers found a home in the Big Ten. UConn, on the other hand, wound up in the fledgling AAC, with a far-flung collection of schools and zero history to fall back on.
Of course, the AAC didn’t have to be the end of UConn basketball success. Cincinnati also went from the Big East to the AAC, yet the Bearcats still managed to build a top-10 team this season. But for various reasons (underperformance, injuries, coaching), things didn’t work out like that for UConn. Now, the program is stuck with an underwhelming roster, in a bad conference with a track record that is fading to memory.
At this point, it’s hard to imagine many top recruits flocking to Storrs. The sleepy farm-country location has never helped, but in the past UConn could sell prospects on NCAA Tournament runs and NBA dreams. But it has been four years since the program made the second weekend of March Madness and equally long since it produced a consequential NBA player (Napier). Those pitches might not work too well on high-schoolers with short memories.
As Hurley sets out to recruit the next generation of UConn players, it’s important to remember that even in the heyday of Jim Calhoun, the Huskies rarely scored top prospects. UConn’s best teams were built around players either overlooked out of high school (Emeka Okafor), underrated (Rip Hamilton) or entirely off the map (Hasheem Thabeet). Calhoun’s brilliance was his ability to turn two-star recruits into contributors, three-stars recruits into stalwarts and four-star recruits into legends. Can Hurley pull some similar magic? That’s a lot to count on.
None of this is to say Hurley can’t succeed. He pulled an impressive turnaround at Rhode Island and knows what it’s like to recruit in a non-Power 5 conference. But as much as UConn fans would like to think that the Kevin Ollie era was a blip for a program destined to return to the college-basketball mountaintop, it’s just as likely that middling performance in the AAC are the new normal. Best of luck to Dan Hurley, because he might really need it.