Bobby Hurley returns to ‘big dance’ as coach
Hurley uses NCAA tournament experiences to prepare Bulls
When the men’s basketball team was just 6-6 in the Mid-American Conference and coming off a devastating 75-74 last second loss to Central Michigan, head coach Bobby Hurley did not go to his extensive highlight reel of his time as a star point guard at Duke right away.
Hurley instead showed the Bulls game tape of his mistakes in the 1990 NCAA finals between Duke and The University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), where Hurley’s Blue Devils lost by 30 points.
Then Hurley showed his team tape of 1991 NCAA semifinals, where Duke avenged its loss and stunned UNLV 79-77.
“I just wanted to give them the contrast that you got to open yourself up to possibly getting your heart broken … The flip slide is there is also a chance that you can do something really special,” Hurley said. “It’s part of who I am, it’s something that happened to me. I don’t know if it made any difference or if they couldn’t wait to get out of there, but I just wanted them to see the possibilities and excitement of what it could be like to play in an NCAA tournament.”
It seemed to have made some difference, as the Bulls, like the Blue Devils did against UNLV the second time around, defeated Central Michigan in the MAC Championship game last Saturday. Now the Bulls (23-9, 12-6 MAC) are headed to their first-ever NCAA tournament.
And Hurley may need to use more of his vast NCAA Tournament experience if No. 12 seed Buffalo is going to get past No. 5 seed West Virginia (23-9, 11-7 Big 12) Friday in Columbus, Ohio. Hurley, who won back-to-back national titles with Duke from 1991-92, is returning to the tournament for the first time since his playing days. But he will be leading a team from the sidelines instead of on the court.
Players said having a coach with NCAA Tournament experience is helpful heading into the big game.
“It makes everything [Hurley] says valid,” said Xavier Ford, a senior forward. “A lot of guys at the mid-major level, you respect them as coaches, but you can look at a coach and know you can go on YouTube and type in his name and see documentaries and you see him holding up championships and how successful he is and how he leads the NCAA in assists and all that great stuff.”
Junior guard Jarryn Skeete said Hurley’s winning pedigree has changed Buffalo’s culture.
“I just think he brings the total package. He’s intense,” Skeete said. “He expects a lot from his players. He’s easy to talk to. You can communicate with him. It's starts from the top. He's a winner and all the way down to the bottom ... It changed the whole outlook of our campus and everything. It's all going up from here.”
Hurley said he tries to avoid players on game day so they don’t see how tense he is. But when the game begins, Hurley takes off his suit jacket and coaches with a similar intensity he had when he was a player.
“The six hours before the game, you don’t want to be around me,” Hurley said. “It’s like scary what I’m looking like. I’m falling apart at the seams … But as soon as game starts, I feel like this is where I should be.”
To get ready for Friday’s game, Hurley called his former head coach at Duke, Mike Krzyzewski, who’s won four national championships for the Blue Devils.
“[Coach K] said to stay focused with your team, to make sure your team is listening to your message and that’s what you want them to follow,” Hurley said. “He also wanted me to talk to as many people as I could talk to. He said, ‘This is a great opportunity to you to promote your program nationally.’”
Multiple sports analysts including Jay Bilas, an ESPN analyst and a former assistant coach at Duke who coached Hurley, have picked Buffalo to upset West Virginia on Friday. Even President Barack Obama’s bracket has the Bulls defeating the Mountaineers.
“For me, it’s just don’t listen to anything that anyone’s saying except us,” Hurley said. “People might say we’re supposed to win now, or we’re the popular pick here to upset because it’s the 12 [versus] 5 game, or we’re the hottest team coming in. And then there are other people who say we don’t have a shot because they’re a Big 12 team and they’re physical. I just want them to concentrate on what we’ve been doing and not get caught up in any of that stuff.”
Ford said Hurley has stressed to the team the importance of not listening to the perception of how team will play.
“Some people are going to say we’re going to win, some people are going to say we’re going to lose,” Ford said. “So the main thing he emphasized is not to worry about the outside factors and try to stick together.”
Hurley said he hasn’t done anything different while preparing the Bulls for Friday’s game and doesn’t plan on changing his routine, except for fitting in interviews. Hurley said he just managed to get in his 3-mile treadmill run Tuesday morning because the rest of his day is completely filled.
“I’m literally timed out,” Hurley said. “It’s different, but I’ll take it. It’s a good problem to have.”
Even if the Bulls go out in the first round, Hurley said he wants the team to have a memorable experience.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” Hurley said. “There’s nothing like this tournament and I’m just excited for my team to have the opportunity to play in it.”
Friday’s game at Nationwide Arena set for 2:10 p.m. in Columbus, Ohio. It will be televised nationally on TNT.
Tom Dinki contributed reporting to this story.
Jordan Grossman is the senior sports editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org