PORTLAND, Ore. – Their paths don’t cross often, not by design, but because they have to keep to different schedules. They occupy almost identical, but separate halves of the Werth Family Center, facing their own sets of obstacles, pressures, and the evolution of their sport.
But this week, UConn men’s basketball coach Dan Hurley and women’s coach Geno Auriemma found themselves together on a long flight to Portland for the Phil Knight events, and locked in conversation.
“It was probably me asking a lot of questions about bigger picture things,” Hurley said. “Short-term things about coaching the current teams, program-building things. A great resource, to get stuck on a 6 1/2-hour flight and be able to steal some knowledge from an all-timer.”
They both arrived in Portland undefeated. Hurley and the men practiced on Wednesday, toured the Nike headquarters. They were to play Oregon in their first game Thursday night at the Moda Center, and the women, who played Duke on Friday, were planning to attend the men’s game.
The takeaway from the long conversation: Auriemma, who has won 11 championships, thinks Hurley has assembled the kind of team that can get him his first, which would be the program’s fifth.
“I don’t know how much I can help him,” Auriemma said. “He’s got a great staff, he’s got a hell of a team. He loves his team. I don’t think he needs any help from me. They’re really, really good. I wouldn’t be surprised if they win the whole thing. And they’ve been really, really good without three of their best players. We’re both trying to figure out how to navigate that, and when those guys come back, how the rotation changes.”
Hurley didn’t mind hearing of the high expectations from across the aisle. “I would say it would be more pressure if people thought we stunk and didn’t have a shot,” he said.
Both coaches had to get through the early season with injuries. Hurley was without Andre Jackson and Jordan Hawkins, both now back, and Samson Johnson, who has a foot injury that will keep him out until early December. But the men are 5-0, ranked 20th, beating five mid-major opponents by an average of 30.4 points. Oregon presented a major challenge with its size and defense zone matchup.
“This is an early season, big-time tournament with only big-time teams here,” Hurley said.
Both coaches, too, have had to navigate the new structure of college basketball, which involves the transfer portal. Auriemma has gotten productivity from transfers Dorka Juhász, who is currently out with a broken thumb, and Lou Lopez Sènèchal.
Hurley, who has always taken pride in developing players and team-building over time, has had to be more of a pro coach, assimilating four experienced newcomers into his system, and so far the transfers, Nahiem Alleyne, from Virginia Tech, Joey Calcaterra , from San Diego, Hassan Diarra, from Texas A&M, and Tresten Newton, from East Carolina, have fit in.
“Their presence certainly helped when we were missing Jordan and Andre,” Hurley said. “I’m thrilled that we got those guys. It’s an ongoing process. this is the next part of it, now they’re in their first big spot at UConn. How can you help us win? What kinds of things you can do as a winning player?’”
Through the first five games, the Huskies, with freshman Alex Karaban and Donovan Clingan also contributing, looked like they had been playing together for a while.
“The way we move the ball is definitely special and a lot different from any of the teams I’ve played in since I’ve been here,” Jackson said. “It was a lot of fun to just watch it, and figure out where I could implement myself when I got back, picking my spots on both sides of the floor. It’s a lot of fun to watch this group play, even watching films after the games.”
Calcaterra said, “I give most of the credit to the coaching staff. Coach Hurley and the staff make our practices hard, so that we can go through that together, through those hard conditions early in the year, so we feel more comfortable playing with each other through those hardships throughout the whole season. The leaders who have been here have done a great job incorporating the new guys, building that chemistry on and off the court has been huge.”
As Hurley and Auriemma, whose team is 3-0 with two wins over top-10 opponents last week, continued to compare notes, they found more similarities than differences in their jobs, but Hurley pointed out the luxury Auriemma has of usually having his best. players for four years.
“We covered a lot of topics, a ton of stuff,” Auriemma said. “Mostly, when we weren’t watching film, it was talking about how our jobs are so similar, and the challenges of our jobs now vs. when he played at Seton Hall and I first started coaching, and how incredibly similar every coach’s situations are. We’re all dealing with things we’ve ever dealt with before and trying to figure out how best to deal with them.
“I think he envies our situation because, if I recruit a great, great player, I know I’m going to have them for four years. And he knows, if he recruits a great player, like a couple he has now, he may not. We get to build them. One of his comments that was really good, ‘you’re going to get the best of Azzi Fudd and Paige Bueckers, their junior, senior year, you’re going to get the best they have to offer. Somebody else is going to get the best of my guys who leave after their sophomore year.’ That’s what coaching is today at that level.”
Hurley’s father, Bob, is in the Naismith Hall of Fame as a high school coach, and he has had long conversations with his Hall-of-Fame predecessor at UConn, Jim Calhoun.
“This was like the chance I got to talk to Coach [Jim] Calhoun, or my Dad,” he said. “And Geno, all-time great coaches.”
Dom Amore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org