Adam Betz: Belief is contagious for UConn men

Dec. 2—STORRS — In the lead up to the UConn men's basketball team's game against Oklahoma State in the Big East-Big 12 Battle, coach Dan Hurley said the game could very well be the Huskies' "toughest" of the season.

That comment can be argued, but what can't be argued is the passion Hurley had in his sentiment.

"This was a big one for me," Hurley said. "I don't know if you guys picked up on my nerves. I was a little agitated (Wednesday) all day because I knew this was a very dangerous game. A team with a lot of talent, a lot of length and could match up with a lot of things that we bring. A team who's looking for a signature win that would really change things for them.

"I think tonight, it built my confidence in the group. To get that type of separation versus that team and then be able to keep it double digits, I believe in this team."

The eighth-ranked Huskies let the game get interesting in the second half, but held on for a 74-64 win over the Cowboys at Gampel Pavilion.

The win gave Hurley the belief he was hoping for, and continued UConn's momentum as they prep for its next test: the first true road game of the season at Florida Wednesday.

"Great teams, they win away from home," Hurley said. "If you want to really build a résumé and send a message about how good you are, we're 3-0 on neutrals and now we get the chance to go to a big high-major place on the road in Florida and play in a hostile environment. Obviously, we're going to go in there highly ranked, so we're going to get a real hostile environment. It's a chance to pick up a big, big road win."

Hurley has had a series of points that he's consistently circled back to this season: the team's depth, surviving the non-conference schedule while Andre Jackson and Jordan Hawkins recovered from injury, and not letting the recent buzz about the team impact its performance or preparations.

The team survived the non-conference leading up to the Phil Knight Invitational tournament, and the Huskies left Portland, Oregon with their first early-season tournament title since 2013-14.

The depth is now finally on full display, with the exception of the injured Samson Johnson.

For example, Hawkins and Adama Sanogo struggled in the Huskies' previous game against Iowa State in the championship round of the PKI. The duo — UConn's leading scorers — combined for six points on 2-of-9 shooting against the Cyclones.

But double-doubles from Jackson and Donovan Clingan helped pick up the slack.

In Thursday's win, Hawkins (26) and Sanogo (20) were the game's leading scorers, while Jackson's 11 points and Joey Calcaterra's nine helped pick the team up when Alex Karaban and Tristen Newton both had quiet nights.

"Some of our other guys have really been giving us quality production," Hurley said. "They just had a game where they didn't make shots or it just wasn't a good game. And credit Oklahoma State, I mean they make it hard on you. ... But our big three did what they needed to do for this team tonigh, which was carry us offensively."

Following the game, Hurley likened the 2022-23 Huskies to the 2017-18 University of Rhode Island team he coached that won 16-straight games during the season and reached the second round of the NCAA tournament.

"The thing about that team was they celebrated each other's success," he said. "They knew that scoring a couple more baskets a game isn't really going to impact career opportunities down the line. It's about putting quality on the court. It's about winning big. Winning big does more for your career than scoring empty points and hunting numbers on a losing team.

"It's all about keeping that mentality and that culture about winning and celebrating when it's other people's night to have a good offensive game."

Whether you like Hurley, don't or are indifferent of the man, you have to admire his passion and his ability to get his players to completely buy into his vision of what this team can be.

Hurley believes, and the players believe.

"I would just credit everybody being able to sacrifice," Jackson said. "That's the biggest thing. When you have so many high-level players from so many different schools coming in, you have to sacrifice. Everybody has to sacrifice because if not, the team chemistry won't be where it's supposed to be. I really just give credit to everybody who came in and just really bought into Coach Hurley's system.

"That's really helped everybody come together and kind of got rid of the jealousy and stuff like that that would happen if people were all trying to have the big role. I think that's the biggest thing. Everybody just accepting their role and what they can bring to the team."

The final and most recent point Hurley has talked about is not drinking the Kool-Aid, or "poison" as he referred to it Wednesday, of people praising the team's hot start to the season.

That's been a success too, at least so far.

"I think we're definitely 100 percent following that advice," Jackson said. "Prior to the season, nobody looked at us as a top 25 team. So we take that to practice every day with us. We have a chip on our shoulder really as a team. We've got something to prove, and we're really going to try to prove that."

They might be blocking it out, but the Huskies have already proven it to some.

"I said to our local media on Tuesday as we started to prepare for (UConn) that I don't know if (being ranked) 8 is high enough for this team," Oklahoma State coach Mike Boynton said. "I watched them play every one of their games up to that point and I saw a team that, from my view for whatever it's worth, is capable of winning the national championship. They've done a tremendous job here."

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Adam Betz is a Journal Inquirer staff writer.

For coverage of UConn football and men's basketball as well as area high school and local youth sports, follow Adam Betz on Twitter: @AdBetz1, Facebook: Adam Betz — Sports Writer, and Instagram: @AdBetzJI.