Dom Amore: Dan Hurley seeing strength in UConn men’s basketball numbers

Andre Jackson was asking how to grip the baseball. Donovan Clingan showed him the four-seam fastball and Jackson took it to the mound.

“We eliminated Adama [Sanogo],” UConn men’s basketball coach Dan Hurley said, “because if you saw the softball game last year, he was atrocious. [Jordan Hawkins] was making a push for it, and everyone else had the situational awareness to know it had to be one of those three.”

So Jackson, 6 feet 6, took the ball like an ace and delivered the first pitch at the Yard Goats’ game at Dunkin’ Donuts Park Wednesday, which served as a team outing for the Huskies. He threw a strike, if you believe in a high strike zone.

“Team building” throughout the summer is a key element of Hurley’s M.O., and it’s more important than ever.

“We do a lot on the court in the summer,” he said after spending a long third inning on the air with Jeff Dooley in the Yard Goats’ radio booth. “We have so many guys that are new to the program, not just the four transfers, but guys who are new to the court, Alex Karaban and Donovan and Samson [Johnson], it’s a pretty large group of players.”

The Huskies are not rebuilding, not with Jackson, Sanogo and Hawkins forming the core of returning players, but the modern college basketball world makes for significant roster turnover every year. The experienced additions, Tristan Newton, Joey Calcaterra, Naheim Alleyne and Hassan Diarra, all guards, should provide a lot of bench strength.

“The thing I’m noticing is the depth,” Hurley said. “When you lose R.J. Cole, who was one of the best guards in the country last year, and Tyrese Martin, who, as it turns out, is an NBA level player, you worry so much about trying to replace them. You’re not necessarily going to get that production from a new player, but collectively, potentially, this is the best one through 10 or 11 since I’ve been here. The depth over the course of the season is going to be a foundation.”

Depth in basketball is a relative thing. It would not be hard to imagine UConn using 10 or 11 players early in the season against mid-majors, but when the Big East games begin, it’s not so easy to play an extended rotation. As last season wore on, despite the 23-10 record, Hurley did not have, or at least did not show a ton of confidence in his bench, which prompted four players to transfer out.

So this is the kind of roster Hurley wanted to build, basically what he described shortly after the Huskies were eliminated by New Mexico State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament — a roster that resembles his last team at Rhode Island, which went 26-8 and had eight players averaging more than 17 minutes, nine averaging more than 8 1/2.

“I’m excited for practice to start,” Hurley said, “because this team reminds me of the best team I’ve had in college, the sixth year at Rhode Island, where we played nine or 10 players and that depth played really well. The strength of those Rhode Island teams was the number of guards, going five or six deep at the guard position.”

The Huskies spent the game up in the Yard Goats’ club, watching Portland, the Red Sox Double A affiliate, beat the Hartford nine, 9-4, a perfect, decompressing summer night to get away from the intensity of workouts on campus. Depth and chemistry will be important, but for UConn to reach its goals and expectations, its core players will have to make the big leap from year to year.

Jackson averaged 6.8 points and 6.8 rebounds and his athletic ability and all-around game needs more scoring punch. He’s asserting himself in a leadership role the way Hurley envisioned.

“Seriously old school,” Hurley said. “Captain. Like, old school throwback. He’s a unifier all the time, but he’s not afraid to jump somebody and demand more and address team issues. He’s a breath of fresh air. I don’t know how many guys like this you’ll get to coach in today’s game. It’s a blessing.”

Sanogo, the 6-9 junior who averaged 14.8 points, 8.8 rebounds, and could be the Big East’s preseason player of the year, is poised to take a step forward.

“Adama leads by example,” Hurley said. “He’s got a Michael Jordan, ‘Last Dance’ type of mentality about what he wants from his teammates. Adama’s really, really tough guy to play with if you’re not about it. This is his team now, along with Andre and Jordan as well. In particular, Adama wants the responsibility to take this team far.”

UConn really needs Hawkins, 6-5, after a freshman season in which he was slowed by injuries, averaging 5.8 points, 14.7 minutes, to do more than scratch the surface of his scoring ability.

“Physically, he looks different,” Hurley said. “Obviously the shooting, and the athletic ability and there is a toughness about him that showed the second half of the year. Losing him late hurt. I think he’s going to surprise people.”

Last summer, Hurley’s theme, T-shirts and all, was “45:07,” a reference to the last game-plus in which the 2020-21 season fell apart in losses to Creighton in the Big East tournament and then Maryland in the NCAAs. So far, he hasn’t come up with a slogan for the Huskies’ next mission, but everyone knows what it is: to extend the season deeper into March in 2023.

“Obviously, we’re disappointed with what we’ve done in the NCAA Tournament,” Hurley said. “But our seasons, playing to a No. 7 seed after being down for a while, playing to a five seed, putting ourselves in position in the Big East Tournament [semifinals] — just play a little better and maybe have a chance to play for a championship. We feel good about our seasons, I think we have a lot more confidence as a program. For us, right now, it’s just about putting this team together.”

Dom Amore can be reached at