Hurley: Big East is Return to National Stage, No Nights Off

Sophomore James Bouknight in a photo from last season, driving to the basket against Wichita State.
Sophomore James Bouknight was selected by coaches to the preseason All-Big East second team as one of the 10 top players in the conference. (Stephen Slade ’89 (SFA)/UConn Athletics Photo)

The Huskies’ return to the Big East Conference this year is both a homecoming and an anticipated challenge for men’s basketball coach Dan Hurley.

Hurley played in the conference at Seton Hall, coached against Big East teams while leading Wagner College and the University of Rhode Island, and has competed recruiting players in the conference’s territory. Asked during the virtual Big East media day what it means to return to the conference, Hurley was succinct.

“The difference from where we’ve been in the last couple of years is these games are high profile,” he said. “This is the national stage for games. Absolutely no nights off, home or away. You could lose any game because top to bottom, there’s just no nights off in a conference like this.”

The UConn men begin their first season since 2012-2013 as a Big East team on Wednesday, Nov. 25 against Central Connecticut State University, which is coached by Husky great Donyell Marshall, at Gampel Pavilion, before heading to the Roman Legends Classic at Mohegan Sun Arena on Dec. 1 against Vanderbilt. The Huskies begin Big East play on Dec. 11 against St. John’s at Gampel Pavilion.

UConn’s Big East games will be on Fox Sports 1 (FS1) for television and on the UConn IMG Sports Network for radio, led by 97.9 FM ESPN.

The preseason Associated Press men’s basketball poll for 2020 includes Big East teams Villanova (3) and Creighton (11) in the top 25 and teams that also received ranking votes included Seton Hall, Providence, and UConn. The Big East coaches’ poll placed the Huskies fourth, behind Villanova, Creighton, and Providence and included UConn’s sophomore guard James Bouknight on its All-Big East second team as one of the 10 top players in the conference.

Hurley said even before knowing about a return to the Big East, where the Huskies won three of its four national championships and the conference record book includes the names of former top Huskies, top players were looking at UConn’s long-established reputation as a basketball power.

“Returning to the Big East has been a really incredible infusion of energy, just a much needed jolt for the fan base to create another level of excitement,” he said. “We were well on our way to getting the level of talent in here back to the level it needed to be in our first recruiting class when there was no hint about the Big East, with James Bouknight, Jalen Gaffney, Akok Akok, and R.J. Cole. We were already recruiting at a very high level.”

Providence head coach Ed Cooley, who previously coached at Fairfield University and walked the sideline against Hurley in Rhode Island in recent years, is looking forward to renewing their battles on the court.

“I’m excited to have Connecticut back in the conference,” he said. “It’s a natural fit. It’s going to be exciting to go to Gampel or Hartford. Dan has done a really good job building that program back. It’s a national program. I’m looking forward to competing against a very, very good basketball team.”

Dave Leitao, head coach at DePaul and a former assistant to Jim Calhoun, will lead the Blue Demons against the Huskies in Big East competition.

“[UConn] entering back into the Big East is monumental because of success that they’ve had as a major force in this league,” Leitao said. “I compliment Coach Hurley for quickly returning back to a style of play that UConn has stood for. There’s an immediate worry from my standpoint about the two visits that we’ll have with them, one in Chicago and one in Connecticut. I’m sure going back there, as I have before with a couple of other teams, will be a little bit more emotional than a normal game, but our team and their team will compete at a high level as all schools and teams do in this league. I’m looking forward to seeing some old faces and just enjoying the experience because I know the positivity of UConn and the Big East has been such a wonderful thing nationally for college basketball.”

Bouknight, who averaged more than 17 points and 5.3 rebounds per game in the last 12 games of last season, was named one of 20 college players on the watch list for the 2021 Jerry West Shooting Guard of the Year Award. The native of Brooklyn, New York said he is eager to play in the Big East.

“Growing up wanting to play major college basketball, you want to play against the best teams in the country,” he said. “Not taking anything away from the AAC (American Athletic Conference), but every night playing against the Villanovas of the world, the St. Johns of the world, it’s a dream come true. I want to play Big East games. I’ve been working on my game all summer getting stronger, faster, more explosive. My confidence is at an all-time high. I feel like I have different abilities.”

Senior Isaiah Whaley said Hurley asked him to work on improving his offensive skills, add some weight and strength and to become a more vocal leader for the team.

“Coach told me he wanted me to play more forward,” Whaley said. “I’ve been working on my perimeter game so I can stretch my game. I’ve been more of lead by example guy. Coach needs me to be a more vocal leader.”

The Huskies won nine of their last 12 games before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the post-season just as the AAC tournament was about to start, ending the season with a 19-12 record. With a roster filled with experienced players and several highly regarded freshmen, the Huskies appear poised to be a factor in one the nation’s most competitive conferences.

“We learned how to win by the end of the year,” said Bouknight. “We’re trying to take that momentum into this year.”

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