HOUSTON — From one program architect to another: Well done.
Dan Hurley has Connecticut back at the Final Four this weekend as the heavy favorite to cut down the nets Monday night at NRG Stadium, and the man who turned the Huskies into a national brand has nothing but positive things to say about the guy who is continuing the tradition.
“He’s done a terrific job. He’s made mistakes, he didn’t bury his head down,” Calhoun told The Post in a phone interview this week. “He seeked advice to talk through it. He’s been a great bulldog in that regard, staying with it and believing in what he’s doing. I just think he’s attacked after things not going quite as well [in January]. That’s what’s called coaching.”
Calhoun is more than just an interested former coach rooting on his old program.
Hurley has used his knowledge to help UConn, leaning on him for advice and having him speak to the team on several occasions.
He was a semi-regular at practices this season, and is in Houston this weekend for what the 80-year-old Calhoun hopes is the Huskies’ fifth national championship.
In fact, during Hurley’s first season at UConn, he was moping about the state of the program, even questioning if he made the right decision by leaving Rhode Island.
He complained about it to Calhoun, who gave him the equivalent of a verbal spanking.
“He looked at me with a serious scowl then called me a f–king baby and said, ‘Get your head out of your a–,’ ” Hurley recalled this week on Barstool Sports’ “Pardon My Take” podcast. “ ‘This is UConn, son.’ You know, he ripped [me]. And since then I’ve [been] shot out of a cannon. … When a coach tells you that, you get to work.”
Recalling that conversation, Calhoun said he told Hurley not to worry about losing, because the result would be losing his job if that happened.
If he won, he would get a raise.
All he should worry about is the present.
Hurley has done that, leading the Huskies to three straight NCAA Tournament berths and putting together elite recruiting classes.
Next year’s group is ranked fourth by 247Sports.com.
Still, entering this March there were questions if Hurley could get it done in the NCAA Tournament.
He lost in the first round as the favorite each of the previous two seasons.
He has emphatically answered those doubts, leading fourth-seeded UConn back to the Final Four — where it will meet No. 5 Miami — for the first time since it won it all in 2014.
“By Danny going to his third straight NCAA [Tournament], we’re certainly headed in the right direction. Obviously we can make a giant leap this weekend in Houston,” Calhoun said. “I’m very happy with what he’s done with the program. They don’t have to make me happy, but I am. I’m proud of the way Danny has stayed with it. It’s never easy, and it won’t be easy to maintain greatness. It never is.”
That, essentially, has been Calhoun’s message to Hurley’s players: Seize the moment.
You never know what can happen in the future.
Embrace being the favorite and don’t waste this opportunity.
“One of the things they need to hear, and I was more than happy to tell them: What I’ve seen this year right now at this moment in time, they’re the best team in the country,” Calhoun said. “And you know what? I’d always rather go in with having the best team in the country. My thing was to assure them how good they are. These eyes have seen a lot of balls bounces, heard a lot of whistles and seen a lot of games. This team is really good.”
Calhoun is thrilled to still be involved, appreciative that Hurley has included him with this group so much.
If requested, he wouldn’t mind talking to the team again if it advanced to Monday’s national championship game.
“I’ll always be a Husky,” Calhoun said.
Three keys: Miami vs. UConn
A mismatch inside
Connecticut feasts in the paint, ranked second nationally in rebounding margin at plus-9.4. It starts big with Adama Sanogo and gets bigger with 7-foot-2 freshman Donovan Clingan. Miami is thin up front, and leading rebounder Norchad Omier is undersized at 6-7.
If the sophomore gets into foul trouble, the Hurricanes will have no answer for the Huskies’ size.
The health of Hawkins
Jordan Hawkins, the Huskies’ star guard and projected NBA first-round pick, has a non-COVID-19 illness and didn’t practice on Friday.
His status is uncertain. If the 6-5 sophomore, Connecticut’s second-leading scorer, either can’t play or isn’t himself, it certainly changes the dynamic on the offensive end for the Final Four favorite.
Tempo has to favor Miami
Miami has the backcourt edge with its dynamic three-guard lineup of Jordan Miller, Nijel Pack and ACC Player of the Year Isaiah Wong. While Connecticut likes to run when it can, it has an advantage in the half-court due to its major edge inside. If it is an up-and-down game, the Hurricanes will benefit.