It’s funny how a game in Pittsburgh gets people to pay attention to Staten Island.
New York City’s reputation as basketball’s Mecca isn’t limited just to Madison Square Garden or Rucker Park — at least, that’s what second-year coach Dan Hurley is preaching at Wagner College. Getting that message to resonate has been aided by the Seahawks’ upset at Pitt, 59-54, on Dec. 23 for their first win over a ranked team since 1978. The Panthers had been 70-0 against teams from the NEC.
Hurley is a brand name in East Coast basketball, with his father, Bob, coaching St. Anthony in Jersey City, N.J., for nearly four decades, Dan playing at Seton Hall and brother Bobby an All-American at Duke and the No. 7 overall pick by the Sacramento Kings in 1993. Dan coached at Rutgers for four years, St. Anthony and then J.R. Smith, Tristan Thompson, Corey Stokes, Lance Thomas and Samardo Samuels at St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark.
After winning 13 games last season (eight more than in 2009-10), Hurley spoke to Dime about what it’s like to build a program — and how to keep the momentum going after a landmark victory.
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Dime: Did your plan include knocking off a top-15 team in Year Two?
Dan Hurley: No chance. No chance. You know, everything you do with the players, both the kids that returned to the progam and the kids we were able to recruit, have made that possible with their commitment and their talents and their work ethic.
Dime: What did you see preparing for Pittsburgh that you knew you could exploit?
DH: We felt like with Travon Woodall (coached by Hurley Sr. at St. Anthony) they were going to be really aggressive and pick them up in the full court and pressure them. And on the offensive end we wanted to make them guard us for longer possessions and run them around there, as well. Take their legs away from them late in the game when programs like that with stature, in the last five minutes take control and finish. We were hoping by that time of the game their guys would be physically taxed and not be able to close like they should.
Dime: And is there a way to explain it considering your team has been down to seven, eight healthy guys this season?
DH: Kids in our program accept coaching with open arms. They’re skillful, talented players in their own right. They work hard to get better every day, and that in some instances will allow us to close the gap with their skill and ability when we play teams from bigger conferences. They make a full, year-round commitment to improvement and I think that’s what’s pushed us way ahead of where we thought we’d be.
Dime: So many of your players are from Jersey. Does your experience at St. Benedict’s and current NBA players carry weight with East Coast high schoolers?
DH: Absolutely. I have to say thanks to all the big guys I’ve coached at St. Benedict’s because they got me to where I could get this job. If it wasn’t for their talent and skill and way we won, I don’t think a college in their right mind would have hired me. Early on in recruiting we sold that because a lot kids we were recruiting knew of Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith, Lance Thomas. They know those names and have seen them. We use that early but now, I think, our recruiting is what we want to accomplish at Wagner. We still have a long way to go.
Dime: Were there tested coaching methods in high school that you’ve had to adjust in college?
DH: I think that we defend the same way, we practice the exact same way in terms of what we do and how we do it. I’d say one adjustment is you’re coaching against such great coaches night in and night out who come up with really strong plans to stop what you do. At the college level you have to spend a lot of time on offense and execution and adding things to what you do to get quality shots because in college everybody plays hard and everyone defends, so I think what sometimes separates you is schematically what you can do to get good shots and possessions.
Dime: It’s not uncommon for your assistants, Bobby Hurley and Bashir Mason, to jump into drills out of necessity because of injuries. Does that show an example to your players about effort?
DH: With Bashir and Bobby in practices, I think it gets our guys a chance to play with guys who are accomplished. They see the game in a way that not a lot of our guys are currently seeing it. Our players are able to learn visually some things and intimately communicate things with them that you can’t pick up as coaching in the heat of the play. That sends a message if you’re achy and sore and not feeling 100 percent, you’ll still get in there and give 100 percent.
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