It was a wild and crazy night inside the XL Center.
UConn men’s basketball pulled off one of their best home wins in the Dan Hurley era Tuesday night against No. 8 Villanova, defeating the Wildcats 71-69 despite losing Hurley for the game’s final 30-plus minutes due an early ejection. Here are some of the biggest takeaways from the Huskies’ fourth-straight victory.
Coach Kimani Young pitched a perfect game
Shawn McGrath: Young was shoved into the spotlight in a crucial game and did not lose his head down the stretch. In particular, he managed RJ Cole’s minutes very well, using a whistle right before the final media timeout to give him an extra breather without missing as much game time, while the play after the timeout to give Tyler Polley the ball on a 3-pointer to bring UConn to within one point was also a great design. Young is considered a rising star in the industry, but certainly made himself some new fans with his coaching performance, especially on short notice.
The team didn’t seem to miss a beat with offensive sets while Hurley was sitting in the locker room, and while part of that is due to the culture that Dan Hurley has cultivated and the quality of coach that he is, Young also deserves credit. Villanova is the best Big East team on UConn’s schedule this year and the Huskies were short a coaching member, leaving Young to pick up the pieces. He did a great job of keeping players within the game and steadying the ship.
Dan Madigan: Young was really, really impressive over those 25 minutes or so as interim head coach. The late game management was spectacular, and the timeout and play design for Polley to pull within one was exceptional. He deserves credit for instructing to trap Collin Gillespie off the ensuing inbounds play instead of fouling, too. The decision to trap instead of foul caught the nearly unflappable Gillespie off guard and forced the jump ball that led to the winning basket — a much better outcome than putting the bets free throw shooter on the best free throw shooting team in the country on the line.
Like Shawn said, Young is already regarded as a rising star in coaching. But his ability to remain poised and go head-to-head with a Hall of Fame coach in Jay Wright has added even more fuel to the fire.
Patrick Martin: Let’s run through a few specifics of the coaching staff’s masterful sets.
Polley’s three: An Andre Jackson handoff to Polley acts as a screen, but with Tyrese Martin and Cole flaring around nearby, defenders couldn’t help right away. Polley was ready to shoot and made the right read, but even if he was covered, one dribble into the lane would open up Martin and Cole on the wings for a similar look. It was quick, it was deadly, and it was a treat to watch.
Cole’s winning basket: Two dribble handoffs find Cole open isolated on the right side of the court. Nova big Brandon Slater was shading the lefty, as Jay Wright probably instructed, into the paint. Sanogo’s ball screen served as a capable decoy, and because of the overload, the entire right lane was open. It was beautiful execution to pass on the screen but also tremendous misdirection in the play call; everyone knows Cole’s preference to bully into the paint on his right hip.
Hurley and ejections
McGrath: Dan Hurley is an emotional guy. He is not afraid to lay into the refs and is certainly closer to Bobby Knight than a master of zen. It’s part of who he is and it’s not going to change. Most of the time, it’s a feature, not a bug, because it’s clear he cares and his team takes on that intensity. But he needs to stop stepping over the line. While he probably shouldn’t have gotten ejected on Tuesday night, it’s important to have a sense of the moment. It was the first half and while it was a crucial game that had remained close, the referees were letting the teams play and figure it out on the court, with just five fouls in 15 minutes of play.
He cannot be slamming the scorer’s table when there’s a no-call he doesn’t like that early in the game, whether it’s a foul or not. The technical there isn’t great, but if he let it end there, it’s not nearly as big of an issue. He needed to be a leader and not compound his mistake by getting ejected because of a lack of emotional control. The referees are in charge of the game and both the players and coaches need to operate within the environment that they cultivate, fair or not, because getting run from the game as a head coach in the first half of a game like this is not something that should happen. He has a reputation and gave the referee the opportunity to send him on his way. Hurley cannot give the referee an opportunity to indulge himself, if only because it gives his team the best chance to win when he’s on the sideline and not in the locker room.
It didn’t hurt his team this time, due in no small part to Young, but ejections cannot happen with any consistency. He’s come close a couple of times and this time he got burned.
Whaley and Jackson—shutdown corners?
Martin: Multiple times throughout the game, the ever-infuriating Collin Gillespie found himself guarded by either Andre Jackson or Isaiah Whaley. Both were effective at either forcing the 10th-year senior into a tough shot or stalled dribble. That’s a trend I’d like to see going forward; mixing in those two defenders on the opponents best player regardless of size. Jackson and Whaley have the versatility to stay with smaller guards, the length and size to bang with bigger threats, and the athleticism to stay with explosive tweeners.
Throwing them on a different player than their matchup as an alternative look, especially in dead ball situations, could really throw teams off for a possession or two. And in March, sometimes those one or two possessions is the difference between a long run and an early exit.