Stakes should be higher when Dan Hurley faces Penny Hardaway in the future
Dan Hurley and Penny Hardaway, in their inaugural season as head coaches at UConn and Memphis, respectively, shared a few kind words in their pregame handshake on Sunday afternoon.
Hurley set the stage for some high-stakes matchups between UConn and Memphis in the future. Not so much this season, but in years to come.
“With what we’ve got coming in and what we’re gonna build, and with what he’s got coming in and what he’s gonna build — knock on wood — I don’t expect us to come into these matchups 13-10 very frequently in the future,” Hurley said after Memphis had held on for a 78-71 victory at FedExForum that improved the Tigers to 14-10 overall and dropped the Huskies to 13-11.
Indeed, when UConn and Memphis meet next season (hopefully more than once, as is the case this season) the main players figure to be very different. Memphis started five seniors on Sunday, so it will be led by an entirely different group. Hardaway, a Memphis alum and a hero in the city, has persuaded many of the city’s top prep talent to stay at home and play for him. Freshmen Tyler Harris (who scored 12 points off the bench on Sunday), Alex Lomax, Antwann Jones and Hardaway’s son, Jayden, figure to be major players next season.
Then there’s Hardaway’s biggest recruiting coup yet: James Wiseman, the 7-foot center from Memphis East High who is rated by several recruiting services as the No. 1 overall recruit in the nation. Wiseman chose Memphis over Kentucky last month.
D.J. Jeffries and Malcolm Dandridge add to what will be one of the top recruiting classes in the country.
UConn will have a similar look to the team that took the floor on Sunday. Jalen Adams didn’t play and may be out for the season, and he’ll be playing professionally somewhere a year from now. Tarin Smith, a grad transfer who’s now starting in place of Adams, will be gone, as will senior Eric Cobb.
Otherwise, four of the Huskies’ starters on Sunday — Christian Vital, Josh Carlton, Tyler Polley and Sidney Wilson — should be back. Polley (20 points) and Wilson (16 points, three blocks) had career games on Sunday.
They should be augmented by point guard Alterique Gilbert, though his continued shoulder woes have to be a concern. Then there’s UConn’s own highly-touted incoming recruiting class, led by Akok Akok, the versatile 6-9 forward who is a non-playing walk-on this season and made his first road trip with the team this weekend.
James Bouknight, a 6-4 shooting guard, and Jalen Gaffney, a 6-2 combo guard, are Top-100 recruits who are in the Hurley mold — hard-nosed, versatile, athletic, dynamic, talented. Both could see immediate minutes next season.
And, of course, Hurley and his staff aren’t done on the recruiting trail, with McDonald’s All-American forward Precious Achiuwa still in their sights.
“I think both programs are gonna spike, in terms of what we look like the next time we meet on the court,” Hurley continued. “Potentially, it could look a little bit different. Not in terms of the result, necessarily, but in terms of what it looks like and what’s at stake.”
It’s widely acknowledged that a good UConn and a good Memphis is good for the American Athletic Conference.
“I think Penny’s great for the league,” said Hurley. “I think what they’ve done in recruiting is great for the league, I think what we’ve done in recruiting is great for the league. I think both programs are gonna be what they should be — soon.”
Of course, that provides an interesting quandary for Hurley. It’s great that Memphis looks to be on its way up, but UConn is going to have to battle the Tigers — on the floor, and on the recruiting trail.
“I root for everyone (in the AAC) in the non-conference, every game, unless they’re playing my brother or somebody in my (coaching) tree,” Hurley explained. “And I root for everyone in recruiting, as long as they’re not recruiting against me. Once we get into league, I root against anyone that’s in our way of elevating towards the top of our league. We expect to be in each other’s way.”
And that can only be good for the league. Until then, UConn (and Memphis) will likely have to continue to take their lumps this season. A pair of teams that are now 13-11 and 14-10 overall.
“People are gonna try to put it on us,” Hurley noted. “(UConn) is a nice scalp to have. People beating up on our brand, our opponents like that. Our guys have to be prepared to deal with that, because we get everyone’s ‘A’ game every time we play, whether Alterique’s out there or Jalen, because we’re UConn.”
“Everyone wants to beat us,” the coach added, “and they especially want to kick us while we’re down, too. And they’re doing that. But, at some point they won’t be doing that anymore.”