New Year’s Resolutions for Dan Hurley and URI Basketball
Wednesday, January 01, 2014
There isn’t a better time to talk about the future of URI basketball than on New Year’s Day. It’s symbolic, isn’t it? As individuals use the flipping of the calendar to make resolutions to make themselves better, URI men’s basketball is a collective program trying to build itself up into the best program it can be. And so, on this day of new beginnings, let’s project some resolutions for the future of Rhody basketball.
In order to justify a resolution, an individual usually has an event or events from the past to prompt the need for transition. For URI, the first event was the coaching turnover after the 2011-12 season, when Jim Baron was out as head coach and Dan Hurley was in.
Hurley was a big coup for the Rams at that time. He’d been a big time high school coach at Saint Benedict’s in New Jersey for nearly a decade, and after moving on to the college ranks he quickly build a winner at Wagner, posting a 25-6 record at the Northeast Conference school in just his second season at the helm.
Hurley came to Rhode Island and in his first season (last year) the team experienced some setbacks. After Baron left behind a team that had won a mere 7 games the previous season, there wasn’t a ton of talent available to Hurley in his inaugural season. To make matters worse, the top two holdovers from the Baron regime would end up not returning to the Rams in 2012. Billy Baron followed his father to Canisius, and Jonathan Holton was expelled from the University after being charged with a video voyeurism felony.
“I think going into last year losing Holton and Billy – who were going to be your two bridge players that could help you be competitive quicker – really hurt,” Hurley told IndependentRI.com in April of 2013.
Hurley’s statement after last year’s 8-21 campaign illustrates a key disconnect the program experienced in the Baron-to-Hurley turnover. As Hurley and Providence College coach Ed Cooley each face criticism from fans this season for having their rosters shortened by a variety of circumstances- a leave of absence and a transfer for Hurley and a pair of suspensions for Cooley- it’s Cooley who has Keno Davis holdovers Bryce Cotton (an All-Big East player) and Kadeem Batts (a fellow senior and multi-year starter) to lean on as he tries to rebuild his program on the fly. Hurley was never afforded the crutch that program stabilizers like Cotton and Batts have provided Cooley.
Without a real nucleus of scholarship players on which to build his foundation, Hurley began finding players via transfer in an attempt to bring in as much talent as possible as quickly as possible. For the 2012-13 season, that meant Xavier Munford, a former player of Hurley’s at St. Benedict’s who had played his first 2 seasons at community colleges. Munford was one of the few bright spots on last season’s 8-21 team, leading the Rams in scoring at 17.4 points per game.
The 2013-14 Rams were expected to take several steps forward from the previous season, as Hurley was able to bring in 7 new scholarship players. E.C. Matthews and Hassan Martin were expected to contribute immediately as freshmen, and all 3 transfers- junior Gilvydas Birtua and sophomores Biggie Minnis and Jarelle Reischel- figured to play big minutes for the Rams this season.
Thus far, the results have mostly been positive on an individual basis. Biruta has battled through some injuries and as the season goes on he’s expected to play more to the double-double form he showed in the Providence and UNH games. Matthews and Martin have been as advertised, and Hurley said after the Southern Mississippi game last Saturday that both players deserved to play in the 30 minute range every game. Minnis continues to grow into the starting point guard role and has been one of the most improved players on the roster over the first half of the season.
And yet, the Rams are 7-6, with a growing propensity to struggle offensively late in close games. The individual progress has not improved the team as much as optimistic fans had expected.
To make matters worse, Hurley is down to 9 scholarship players for the time being. Two thirds of his first recruiting class is out indefinitely, with Jordan Hare away from the team on a leave of absence and Mike Aaman being held out of action after an alleged assault at a Narragansett house party of which he was the victim. Only Ifeanyi Onyekaba (who sat out last season as a “year in residence” student athlete) remains with the team.
Junior guard Mike Powell, one of the key players to last season’s team, is gone, seeking a transfer after being phased out of a larger role and diminished to minimal minutes off the bench. It’s a cold reality of college sports: Hurley trying to distance himself from the program that won 15 games over the previous 2 seasons, Powell responding negatively (as most college players do) to his reduced role. A predictable result from an unfortunate circumstance, but a result that is further handicapping the Rhody roster nonetheless.
Hurley has put the blame for the diminished roster on himself, shouldering the bulk of the blame for URI’s inability to put a full roster on the floor in is time as head coach.
“We’re in our second year. I should have this roster and depth in a better position. I’ve got to do- obviously I can’t allow that to ever happen again,” said Hurley following the UNH win.
“Bottom line though this is the second year. It’s my responsibility to have better options in year two,” he said Saturday after losing to Southern Miss. Hurley later added, “In you second year, our roster- I should have more options. That’s my responsibility moving forward, and I’m not going to be saying this same thing this time next year, because I’m not going to allow that to happen.”
Hurley, to his credit, is accepting responsibility for most of what has plagued his rebuilding effort to this point. As a coach who hasn’t had experience on this level of college basketball before, Hurley is showing the resolve to learn from these first couple of seasons and build a better program because of it.
Speaking after the game Saturday, Hurley was praising reserve guard T.J. Buchanan (now the lone holdover from the Baron regime) when he expressed his commitment to doing a better job in the future.
“Moving forward in recruiting obviously you have to target talent and winners and tough people that are going to stay in the fight for you and be relentless competitors…and not bail on you, for whatever reason.”
Perhaps a sign of his frustration, that soundbyte speaks volumes about the direction the program is headed. The team undoubtedly needs to recruit well, and anyone who isn’t on board for the adversity of a rebuild probably wasn’t going to be a productive asset in the effort anyway.
Fans are impatient, and even though Hurley’s contract runs through 2020, he knows as well as anyone that college coaches are expected to win early and win often. As a coach who has had incredible success everywhere he’s been, Hurley is being challenged like never before in his career and anyone who knows Hurley can vouch for the fiery competitor he is.
URI needs that side of Hurley. They need a coach that doesn’t just want to have success, but he needs to have success. But Hurley would be the first to tell you that the road back to relevance is going to be a tough one.
URI has gone “all in” with Hurley, building a new floor at the Ryan Center, redesigning the uniforms, and all but handing him the keys to the kingdom. He’s the highest paid employee the University has, in case you weren’t aware of the financial impact of major college athletics. Despite whatever the University will say about a commitment to academics first and foremost, financially speaking URI values Dan Hurley more than any other employee it has. Dan Hurley is the man tasked with cleaning up the mess and building the best basketball program the University can possibly produce.
Next year there aren’t any more excuses about rebuilding the mess Hurley inherited. Munford will have graduated, and the only holdover left from Baron’s tenure is Buchanan. For better or worse, the Dan Hurley era is in, the Baron era is in the past, and next season is going to truly be year 1 of Dan Hurley’s URI basketball program.
Hurley needs a full roster, a full Ryan Center, and a promising season in the standings in order to truly get the program on track with some of the Atlantic 10’s best. Hurley preaches building a strong basketball culture at URI, and while the fans may not have bought in just yet (at least judging by some of the attendance numbers thus far), URI has.
Now, the team must take steps towards building a better basketball culture. Hurley needs to be better, the players need to be better, the fans need to be better, and the basketball program needs to use the second half of this season to get better and prepare for next season, when the page is finally turned completely, the transition period expires, and the next era of Rhody hoops officially arrives.
Sounds like a few good resolutions to start with this New Year.