Transfer portal makes it harder to repeat, Dan Hurley says, with focus divided

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BOSTON – The UConn men’s basketball program is three wins away from territory that hasn’t been reached in 17 years. And this historical two-year run, like none other, has been done while navigating the new transfer portal and Name, Image, Likeness (NIL) terrain, all at once.

UConn made it a point to stay focused on the games during last year’s NCAA Tournament. The type of players it wanted to attract would wait for the season to be over, understanding and appreciating the program’s undivided commitment to winning.

But that also put the Huskies at a disadvantage, forfeiting first-dibs on players who may have been the right fit. Now, as the program faces a real possibility for major roster turnover, potentially all five starters, it’s taking a different approach.

“We have Tom Moore in a pseudo-GM role, trying to project out what the roster’s going to look like,” said coach Dan Hurley, who’s been critical of the portal window opening before the NCAA Tournament. “Obviously, we have players that we know won’t return. Then you have some younger players that you know are going to have heavy, heavy interest in terms of Stephon (Castle) and Donovan (Clingan) and AK (Alex Karaban).

“You’re managing your roster with the portal, with NIL. I mean, for us, you better be a more skilled coach these days because you’re dealing with a lot more stuff… It’s tough. It’s not easy. It’s going to get tougher. Unless somebody – get like a commissioner that gets this thing a little bit more organized and under control. We could really use a commissioner.”

Moore’s role also includes making some initial calls to recruits, expressing interest. Hurley said he’s not actively calling players, though he has phoned at least one available high school player and had a conversation.

“We’re kind of having casual conversations about that, but we really are just trying to focus on next practice, studying the heck out of this Illinois team, staying in the moment, staying present with that. It hasn’t hurt us in the past. That’s the way we’ve always handled things,” Hurley said.

“We’re not good at tampering or cheating. We’ve never tried that and we’ve still been very successful. So we want to play out the season and, obviously, we’ll deal with our roster situations. But we just, as a program, we want to have a high-level culture and the respect of our peers to not be one of those programs that’s trying to steal players off other teams in season.

“If we lose players because we’re moving slower, again, it hasn’t hurt us the past two years.”

A ‘rebounding war’

UConn’s toughness is set to be challenged against an opponent its own size for the first time this tournament when it meets Illinois, the second-place finisher in the Big 10 regular season, in the Elite Eight Saturday. The physicality will be evident on the glass, where UConn and Illinois each rank among the top 11 in the nation in terms of margin.

“It’s going to be a bloody battle,” Hurley said. “It’s a rebounding war tomorrow. It’s going to be a bloody one. The Big East and the Big 10, two of the toughest leagues. You get real men playing in these two conferences. So when the ball goes up, whoever’s fastest to it, whoever makes that first violent contact and then continues to improve their position”

Illinois is No. 17 in offensive rebounding percentage (35.9%) according to KenPom, UConn is No. 12 (36.8%).

“We have to be physical, use our size, especially on the rebounding aspect of the game,” Illinois forward Quincy Guerrier said. “They’re really good offensive rebound team so we’ll have to really match their physicality and be more physical than them.”

“They’re an excellent rebounding team. We’re an excellent rebounding team,” Hurley said. “We both go to the offensive glass. I think tomorrow is going to be a fun game. I think the two top offenses in the country, NBA players up and down both roster. I know they’re hungry to break through and get to a Final Four. We’re hungry to get back to a Final Four. We’re two of the truly best teams in the country.”

One word to describe Hurley

UConn’s starters, sitting at the dais in Boston’s TD Garden, were asked to describe Hurley using one word, and they couldn’t repeat.

“Loud,” Stephon Castle started. Donovan Clingan went with “competitive” and Alex Karaban chose “passionate,” which upset Tristen Newton: “You took my word. Relentless.” Cam Spencer ended the segment: “A winner.”

“Let’s go boys!” Hurley said sitting in the middle of the group, feeling relief after sensing he was being set up. “Got my back! Culture.”

Away with the blue M&Ms

One of Hurley’s superstitions includes eating eight M&Ms in the locker room before every game, discarding the ones that match the opponent’s team colors. He was excited, thinking he could eat all eight before facing Illinois on Saturday because there are no orange M&Ms (except those made specially for the Mets).

Until he was reminded that Illinois wears blue, too.

“I thought I was safe. I wasn’t focused on the blue. I was so focused on the orange,” Hurley said.

“Whatever works, works,” Karaban said, asked what he thought of his quirky head coach. “It’s worked well for his entire coaching career. Why not continue it? I’ve definitely picked on the superstitious stuff… Cam and I with each other going into the hotel room. I’ve got to go first, and then wait, and then he’s got to go. It’s just weird – he knows what I’m talking about. You know what I’m talking about.”

“That’s true,” Spencer confirmed.

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