PORTLAND, Ore. — Their paths don’t cross often, not by design, but because they have different schedules to keep to. 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 Gino Auriemma found themselves on a long flight to Portland together for the Phil Knight events and engaged in conversation.
“I was probably asking a lot of questions about bigger things,” Hurley said. “Short-term things to coach the current teams, things to build a program. A great resource for being stuck on a 6 1/2 hour flight and being able to steal some knowledge from the eternal man.”
Both arrived in Portland undefeated. Hurley and the men practiced Wednesday, toured Nike headquarters. They were scheduled to play Oregon in their opener Thursday night at the Moda Center, and the women, who play Duke on Friday, planned to attend the men’s game.
The takeaway from the long conversation: Auriemma, who has won 11 championships, believes Hurley has assembled the kind of team that can get him the first, which would be the program’s fifth.
“I don’t know how much I can help him,” Auriemma said. “He has a great team, he has a great 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 were 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 about the high expectations from across the aisle. “I would say it will be more pressure if people think we stink and don’t have a chance,” he said.
Both coaches had to sit out the start of the season with injuries. Hurley was without Andre Jackson and Jordan Hawkins, both already back, and Samson Johnson, who has a leg injury that will keep him out until early December. But the men are 5-0, ranked No. 20, beating five mid-major opponents by an average of 30.4 points. Oregon presented a major challenge with its size and matchup zone defense.
“It’s an early season, big tournament with only big teams here,” Hurley said.
Both coaches also had to navigate the new structure of college basketball, which includes the transfer portal. Auriemma got a boost from the signings of Dorka Juhász, currently out with a broken thumb, and Lou Lopez Sènèchal.
Hurley, who has always prided himself on developing players and building a team over time, has had to be more of a professional coach, assimilating four experienced newcomers into his system and so far the transfers, Naheem Alleyne from Virginia Tech, Joey Calcaterra, from San Diego, Hassan Diara, from Texas A&M, and Tresten Newton, from East Carolina, enrolled.
“Their presence certainly helped when we were missing Jordan and Andre,” Hurley said. “I’m excited to have these guys. It is an ongoing process. this is the next part of it, now they are in their first big place at UConn. How can you help us win? What things can you do as a winning player?’
Through the first five games, the Huskies, with freshmen Alex Karaban and Donovan Clingan also involved, looked like they had been playing together for a while.
“The way we move the ball is definitely special and a lot different than any of the teams I’ve played on since I’ve been here,” Jackson said. “It’s been a lot of fun just watching him and figuring out where I can go when I come back, picking my spots on both sides of the floor. It’s a lot of fun watching this group play, even watching film after the games.”
Calcaterra said, “I give more credit to the coaching staff. Coach Hurley and the staff make our practices tough so that we can go through it together, through those tough conditions early in the year, so that we feel more comfortable playing with each other through those hardships throughout the season. The leaders that have been here have done a great job of getting the new guys involved, 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 work, but Hurley pointed to the luxury that Auriemma usually has the best players for four years.
“We covered a lot of topics, a lot of things,” Auriemma said. “Mostly, when we weren’t watching film, he would talk about how our jobs are so similar and the challenges of our jobs now compared to when he was playing at Seton Hall and I first started coaching, and how incredibly similar the situations are every coach has them. We all face things we’ve faced before and try to figure out how best to deal with them.
“I think he’s jealous of our situation because if I sign a great, great player, I know I’ll have them for four years. And he knows that if he hires a great player, like a couple he has now, he might not. We have 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 that they have to offer. Someone else will take the best of my guys who leave after their sophomore year. That’s coaching today at this level.”
Hurley’s father, Bob, is in the Naismith Hall of Fame as a high school coach and had long conversations with his Hall of Fame predecessor at UConn, Jim Calhoun.
“It was like the chances to talk to the coach [Jim] Calhoun or my father,” he said. “And Geno, all-time great coaches.”
Dom Amore can be reached at [email protected]