PORTLAND, Oregon. “Their paths don’t cross often, not on purpose, but because they have to keep to different schedules. They occupy nearly 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 Phil Knight events, and locked in conversation.
“It was probably me asking a lot of questions about broader things,” Hurley said. “Short-term stuff about training current teams, building schedules. A great asset, to get stuck on a 6 1/2 hour flight and be able to steal some knowledge from a jack of all trades.”
Both came to Portland undefeated. Hurley and the men trained Wednesday and visited Nike headquarters. They were scheduled to play Oregon in their first game Thursday night at the Moda Center, and the women, who play against Duke on Friday, were scheduled to attend the men’s game.
The result of the long conversation: Auriemma, who has won 11 championships, thinks Hurley has put together the kind of team that can get him his first, which would be his fifth on the schedule.
“I don’t know how much I can help him,” Auriemma said. “He has a great staff, he has a formidable team. He loves his team. I don’t think he needs any help from me. They are really, really good. I wouldn’t be surprised if they win it all. And they did very well without three of their best players. We’re both figuring out how to navigate that, and when those guys come back, how the rotation changes.
Hurley didn’t mind hearing the high expectations from across the hall. “I would say there would be more pressure if people thought we stink and didn’t stand a chance,” he said.
Both coaches had to go through the start of the season with injuries. Hurley was without Andre Jackson and Jordan Hawkins, both returning, and Samson Johnson, who has a foot injury that will sideline him until early December. But the men are 5-0, in 20th place, beating five major average opponents by an average of 30.4 points. Oregon presented a major challenge with its size and matchup zone defense.
“This is an early season tournament, with only big teams here,” Hurley said.
Both coaches also had to navigate college basketball’s new structure, which involves the transfer portal. Auriemma gained productivity from transfers Dorka Juhász, who is currently out with a broken thumb, and Lou Lopez Sènèchal.
Hurley, who has always prided himself on developing players and team building over time, has had to be more of a pro coach, assimilating four seasoned newcomers into his system, and so far transfers, Nahiem Alleyne, from Virginia Tech, Joey Calcaterra, of San Diego, Hassan Diarra, of Texas A&M, and Tresten Newton, of East Carolina, filled in.
“Their presence definitely helped when we were missing Jordan and Andre,” Hurley said. “I’m thrilled we got those guys. It’s a continuous process. this is the next part, they are now in their first big seat at UConn. How can you help us win? What kinds of things can you do as a winning player?’”
Through the first five games, the Huskies, also aided by freshmen Alex Karaban and Donovan Clingan, appeared to be playing together for a while.
“The way we move the ball is definitely special and very different from any of the teams I’ve played for since I’ve been here,” Jackson said. “It was a lot of fun watching that and figuring out where I could implement myself when I came back, picking my spots on either side of the floor. It’s a lot of fun to watch this group game, even watch movies after games.
Calcaterra said: “I give most of the credit to the coaching staff. Coach Hurley and the staff make our workouts tough, so we can go through those tough conditions together at the beginning of the year, so we feel more comfortable playing each other through those tough conditions to all season. The leaders who have been here have done a great job incorporating the new guys, building that chemistry on and off the pitch has been huge.
While 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 works, but Hurley emphasized Auriemma’s luxury of usually have its best players for four years.
“We covered a lot of topics, a lot of things,” said Auriemma. “Mainly, when we weren’t watching movies, we were talking about how our jobs are so similar and the challenges of our jobs now versus today. when he played at Seton Hall and I started coaching, and how incredibly similar each coach’s situations are. We’re all dealing with things we’ve never dealt with before, and we’re trying to figure out how best to deal with them.
“I think you envy our situation because, if I hire a great, great player, I know I will have him for four years. And he knows that if he recruits a big player, like a duo he has now, he might not. We can build them. One of the comments from him which was really good, ‘you will get the best out of Azzi Fudd and Paige Bueckers, their junior, senior year, you will get the best they have to offer. Someone else will get the better of my boys who will leave after the second 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 has had lengthy conversations with his Hall of Fame predecessor at UConn, Jim Calhoun.
“They were like the chances to talk to the coach [Jim] Calhoun, or my dad,” he said. “And Geno, the great coaches of all time.”
Dom Amore can be reached at email@example.com