PITTSBURGH — If there was every any question that Dan Hurley would be a perfect coach for Pitt, that theory was completely dispelled on Thursday at PPG Paints Arena.
Hurley’s Rhode Island Rams battled Oklahoma and the nation’s top scorer Trae Young into overtime.
The Rams relished the defensive challenge of facing the top scorer. They played an effective, annoying brand of defense that did just enough to get Young off his game. It’s a perfect fit for Pittsburgh, and the crowd responded, in particular when freshman Fatts Russell swiped the ball from Young and hit a 3-pointer to stretch a Rhode Island run.
“The program is build around defense and making our opponent uncomfortable,” Hurley said. “You win championships, you advance in this tournament, you build programs around being a good to great defensive team and by being one of the hardest-playing teams in the country, and that’s not hard to get a guy from Philly to buy into. Fatts is a super confident kid that believes in himself and does whatever it takes to win. He’s been incredible all year.”
Russell, by the way, was swiped by Hurley our from the underneath the noses of the Big Five in Philadelphia. Hurley has North Jersey roots, but for a player to leave Philly to play in the Atlantic-10 against the likes of St. Joe’s says a lot about Hurley’s recruiting prowess.
Then there’s the fact that Russell, a freshman, was guarding the best offensive player in college basketball just about nine months after arriving on campus. According to Russell, he didn’t even like playing defense before he got to Rhode Island.
“I came into this program really not enthusiastic about defense,” he said. “But (Hurley) told me, I had to sacrifice myself and do something different for the team because we have five seniors. My role’s not going to be as big as it will be, probably, next year. So, I had to try to impact the game somehow when I got in. I’m not one to just be stealing minutes out there, so I had to figure out something.”
Hurley said he wasn’t surprised by Russell’s strong play on a big stage.
“No, not a second,” Hurley said. “Are you kidding me? If you see this kid day in, day out, that’s a special young man. In any other situation, if he’s playing 30 minutes a game, he’s one of the best freshman guards in the country. He’s a spectacular player. We were communicating last night. I knew he was going to show up big today. He had that look in his eye and a big smile. When you see that smile, something is about to happen.”
Hurley’s perfect fit for Pittsburgh goes beyond his talent as a basketball coach. During the game, he was so animated that he got whistled for a coaching box infraction, only to respond with a grin to the official. After the game, he walked away from his press conference with his arms around his family and let his players get fired up in the locker room about the big win.
There’s basically nothing about Hurley that wouldn’t be absolutely perfect for Pittsburgh. The problem is that he’s pretty perfect for a lot other places, too. It won’t be an easy get for Pitt and Heather Lyke.
Before this week, Hurley was mostly just a name to a lot of Pittsburghers and Pitt fans. A guy that they’d seen coach a few times, but never really looked at in the in-depth fashion that one analyses their potential next coach. Now that they’ve seen what he’s all about, almost anyone else is going to come up small in comparison.