Dan Hurley’s not afraid. But are he and UConn too confident this March Madness?


BOSTON — Dan Hurley knows this is not how coaches talk. Certainly not coaches of teams already wearing a bullseye as the reigning national champion and current No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. If pride comes before the fall, is it really a good idea to repeatedly call your team “bulletproof” before it has successfully run the gauntlet to become college basketball’s first repeat national champion since Florida in 2007? Hurley hasn’t stopped there. After a 39-point rout of Stetson in the first round and a 17-point win over Northwestern in the second, he told his team, while CBS cameras rolled, “Just keep blowing these teams out of this tournament. Just keep smacking them.”

It makes for great TV. But why do that? A sly grin creeps across his face when you ask.

“Well, what’s the alternative? To shrivel up? To turtle up? Your team is going to feed off your energy, your confidence, your swagger,” Hurley told The Athletic on Wednesday, the eve of his title-game rematch with No. 5 seed San Diego State in the Sweet 16. “It’s who we are. It’s the energy I coach with. It’s what the players expect from me. And you know, at UConn, you got this huge target anyway. It’s not like me being a confident man and coach is gonna create a bigger target. People are coming for us. We’re the champs.”

Fair point. The Huskies are 33-3 this season, 48-5 since the middle of last season, and they’ve done a whole lotta smackin’. They’ve won eight straight NCAA Tournament games, all by double digits and by an average of 22 points. So why not a little smack talking too?

“Coach is very confident, and he rubs that confidence off on us,” star 7-footer Donovan Clingan says. “He’s the best coach in the country and pushes us to another level and makes us want to be as great as possible. He always talks about being bulletproof, and what keeps us bulletproof, and that’s our elite defense. If we’re able to keep doing that, I think we’ll be good.”

The metrics overwhelmingly support Hurley’s hypothesis, that his team is Teflon. UConn ranks top-10 nationally in offensive and defensive efficiency, effective field-goal percentage and eFG defense, assist percentage and rebounding margin. If not bulletproof, that’s airtight.

“He’s said it before: We’ve been the best program the last two years, so he just has a confidence that we welcome,” senior guard Hassan Diarra says. “We think we’re the best team in the country and we just have to play like it. I think he’s manifesting what he feels and what he believes, and we believe it as well.”

Hurley’s son, Andrew, is a senior walk-on for the Huskies. He’s also a psychology major who believes, with due respect to all his informative classes, the best possible study in human behavior has come while observing his father on the sidelines. He agrees with Diarra about his dad’s attempt to speak this repeat into existence.

“Putting it out there, being confident enough to say it,” Andrew Hurley says. “You have to believe it in order to go out and do it. I think last year just gave him a lot of confidence. A lot of the pressure is kind of taken off. Obviously there’s a huge push and a drive for this year, but I think it’s a little more loose, more confident, and I think we just know who we are as a program now.”

What they’ll be with two more wins is the first team in Connecticut history to reach consecutive Final Fours. With four more wins, the first repeat national champ since those Gators 17 years ago. Revenge-seeking San Diego State won’t be an easy out Thursday. The winner of Illinois and Iowa State — the Big Ten and Big 12 tournament champs — in the Elite Eight wouldn’t be either. Bulletproof? We’ll soon see.

Clingan says there’s “no danger” in talking the way Hurley has, because the preparation is what matters most.

“Having a leader like that, it’s easy to play behind him,” freshman guard Jaylin Stewart says. “He’s always, constantly giving us the fire and competitive nature to go out there and do what we need to do. He shows us how to prepare in an elite way every day, so we just follow his lead.”

Hurley has no reservations about spouting off. He doesn’t know any other way. And besides, he doesn’t buy the idea that it’s bad luck to simply say out loud how good your team is.

“I don’t think so,” he says. “I mean, we’re respectful. I talk up my opponents. I have unbelievable respect for San Diego State and all the different people we have to go against. But I also just really believe in who we are, too.”

(Photo: Michael Reaves / Getty Images)

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