Viewpoint In Game 1 at UConn, Dan Hurley gets the motor started
STORRS — There were just under seven minutes left in Dan Hurley’s first night as coach of the UConn basketball team when Josh Carlton, one of his special projects, couldn’t corral an offensive rebound.
Carlton refused to give up on the ball. One of a bunch of big men who undoubtedly needed therapy after Kevin Ollie had finished with last season’s mad, erratic rotation of post players, Carlton dove for the ball. And he kept on diving, clearing out cheerleaders and landing hard at the front row of fans.
The 6-foot-9 sophomore didn’t save the ball.
He did win Hurley’s heart.
Hurley dashed off the UConn bench and with a timeout called, he pushed through the crowd. As Jalen Adams helped Carlton get to his feet, there was his coach patting him on the back of his head and slapping him on the back. Carlton patted him back. What did Hurley tell him?
“Yeaaaaahhhh!” Carlton said.
“Josh Carlton was big tonight,” Hurley said.
The sellout crowd at Gampel Pavilion, hoping the new coach wouldn’t pull a hammy in the opener, loved it.
“That’s a message for the whole team,” Hurley said. “We want our team to get excited more about that type of effort than even made buckets.
Carlton, who scored a career-high 17 points in the 80-70 victory over Morehead State, wasn’t taken aback.
“It’s doesn’t surprise me,” Carlton said. “That’s coach Hurley. But it is crazy for a player to see. The coach has your back like that, running over. That really got me energized.”
Yes, the new coach and his pet project had their moment in front of 10,167 fans, who from the start seemed to sense a rejuvenation of UConn basketball. Where once the student section held up block letters spelling, “OLLIEWOOD,” the kids held up “HELLO HURLEY.”
Nobody smelled a 14-18 season on this Thursday night in November. The scent of the first back-to-back losing seasons in three decades was gone. It was far from perfect. Hurley said the team lacked a killer instinct at times. And, yes, there will be periodic growing pains ahead. But there was renewed energy, a hard desire to defend and get out on transition. And there was a big man going 8-for-10 with eight rebounds in just under 27 minutes.
“I give it up to my guards,” Carlton said. “They were looking for me.
“I am a lot more confident. I’m not second-guessing myself. I’m not confused about much. There are some things I don’t know, but I’m going to learn. Having that year under my belt, knowing what it’s like, really helped.”
When Jalen Adams found Tarin Smith to complete a fastbreak basket to open a 61-49 lead with 9:55 left, Hurley turned and lifted his arms to urge on the fans. He would do it again after Carlton went to the hoop to finish a play at the rim with 4:58 left. Carlton had 15 points once last year against Memphis. This basket would give him his career high in Game 1 of his second season. With his coach urging on the fans again, they responded loudly, quite loudly.
No, it wasn’t 10 toes in, but it was 10,167 throats in. Afterward Hurley called the crowd, the students, awesome.
A few weekends ago, after the Huskies’ open-practice, Hurley would say that he coaches Carlton and Sidney Wilson the hardest of all his players in practice. Wilson has been suspended indefinitely for a an unspecified violation of university policy, so we’ll have to see how all that coaching works out with Sid. For Carlton, Hurley said, it was all about “motor,” that energy level.
“Are his eyes wide open?” Hurley said the day. “Is he alert? Is he aware?”
“Coach reminds me for us to play to our full potential I’ve got to step up,” Carlton said. “Coming into the season, there was a lot of doubt about our frontcourt and a lot of emphasis on the backcourt That’s why if I do my work, then we’ll be a complete team.”
On this night, Hurley said, “Josh has real talent. He’s going to be in the deep end of the pool this year. We need him as still a young player to perform at a high level if we’re going to be successful. If his motor is up and his activity is up, the way it was the majority of the game, he has a chance to be a starting player on a really good UConn team.”
Carlton said Hurley is on him. Every day. Every practice.
“He tells me every day to play low, play with energy and focus on defensive end,” Carlton said. “He challenges me every day. Rev my motor. He’s on me hard every day, yelling at me. I think it’s paying off.”
And if you think Hurley running out to Carlton under the basket was something, Carlton said, you should have seen practice on Wednesday.
“He had a great practice,” Hurley said. “He was doing some real man stuff around the basket. He had his teammates excited.”
Turns he had his coach jacked, too.
Carlton said he got the ball down low when one of the guards got their hands on it. He said he ripped the ball free and finished at the basket.
“When I finished that, he took a lap around the gym,” Carlton said.
Around the gym?
“Yeah,” Carlton said, smiling. “So when he ran over when I was on the ground tonight it didn’t surprise me.
“Seeing him running around, crazy-like, makes you want to jump.”
Hurley said he’s an early riser. Carlton is already in the gym working on jump hooks, working at the free throw, working in the weight room.
“He cares a lot,” Hurley said. “This means something to him. He looks the part of a young big with real potential. You don’t have to beg him to get into the gym. He has a nice touch. He has to get consistent minutes and let him play through some bad stretches and learn from his mistakes.
“We’ve been hard on Josh, I’ve been hard on him. The staff has been demanding of him to grow up quickly. Yawkwe (Kassoum) will help us there when he’s healthy. Eric (Cobb) was serviceable in there tonight. But Josh has to emerge as a good, young big for this to work for us this year. To surprise people and be better than people think.”