On Senior Day, Dan Hurley only concerned with UConn men’s basketball team playing ‘maniacally hard’

STORRS — For Isaiah Whaley and Tyler Polley, it will be farewell — again.

For R.J. Cole and Tyrese Martin, it will be farewell — for now.

The UConn men’s basketball team will honor its graduating (or graduated) seniors on Saturday prior to the Huskies’ bout with DePaul (5 p.m., FOX) at Gampel Pavilion.

It’s a key game for the 18th-ranked Huskies (21-8, 12-6 Big East), who are coming off a loss at Creighton Wednesday night. If UConn wins and Creighton loses to Seton Hall on Saturday, UConn will be the No. 3 seed in next week’s Big East tournament. A UConn loss or Creighton win on Saturday and Creighton gets the third seed, UConn the fourth.

With that in mind, along with the importance of finishing the regular season strong heading into next week’s ultracompetitive Big East tournament, Hurley hasn’t put too much thought into Senior Day. He’s asked his administrative staff to worry about tickets for families, etc., and hasn’t even pondered things like whether to start Polley, who hasn’t started all season.

“We’ve just talked about DePaul and how great they’re playing coming in, one of the hottest teams in the league, if not the hottest team,” Hurley noted. “They have been incredibly impressive with one of the hottest and best players in the conference.”

That player is Javon Freeman-Liberty, who has averaged 30 points per game in the Blue Demons’ last three games — all victories. DePaul (15-14, 6-13 Big East) defeated fifth-place Marquette on Wednesday and hasn’t been an easy out for anyone — including UConn. The Huskies struggled to a 57-50 win over the Blue Demons on Jan. 29 in Chicago, a game in which Freeman-Liberty didn’t play.

“This is a team that’s looking at a winning season, and is surging,” Hurley said.

Hurley’s mantra after Thursday’s practice was that his team has to play “maniacally hard.”

“When we don’t play maniacally hard, we’re not very good. That’s basically it,” he said. “We have to absolutely dominate the team we’re playing against with how hard we play. That’s our calling card, that’s our DNA, that’s our secret sauce. If we get away from that, bad things will happen (Saturday) and they’ll happen the rest of the month.”

Certainly, it’s a cue the Huskies can take from their seniors. Whaley and Polley were with the program prior to Hurley, when the team went 14-18 overall and seemed to suffer one 20-point blowout after another under head coach Kevin Ollie.

“They saw what really bad practices look like, and a culture that’s not formed and doesn’t understand how to prepare to win,” Hurley said. “They saw it first-hand, and they experienced it out on game night and the day after games, and all types of situations. I just think ... it’s gonna be so much more valuable to them in terms of their life success, because they’ve seen the bad habits that lead to failure, they’ve seen the good habits that lead to success. They understand how people and organizations can fail or succeed.”

For Hurley, that means just one thing on Saturday: play “maniacally hard” — rebounding, floor dives, taking charges, deflections, contesting at the rim and “getting after people to point where you break their will.”

“That’s what we’re built around. We’re not built around beautiful skillfullnes. Not this team. We’ve got to be a bunch of dogs. Like, real dogs. Or else it doesn’t work.”

RIM RATTLINGS

 Whaley and Polley were honored at last year’s Senior Day, but both wound up choosing to take advantage of the NCAA’s extra year of eligibility and return for a fifth year.

Whaley admitted that last year at this time, he wasn’t planning on returning. But he changed his mind after the season ended a couple of weeks later, and he’s glad he did.

“I learned a lot more things about myself, and developed as a player and a person,” Whaley said. “So, I’m happy about my decision to come back.”

Cole, who graduated last spring, and Martin both have the opportunity to return next season. Both said they’d focus on that decision once this season is over.

 And let’s not forget Southington’s Matt Garry, a walk-on who will also be honored on Senior Day. Garry is in his third season as a preferred walk-on, though he missed all of last year following knee surgery.

“He’s been great for us,” Hurley said. “He’s a good enough player to be able to use live in practice. Matt’s got the battle scars, too. He’s been on the court battling in practice, trying to help us get better. The knee injury is a scar from his time here. It’s been great having Matt with us. I think the experience for Matt’s been great, too, because he’s dealt with some adversity, and it’s made him a better and tougher men.”

 Hurley had this to say about the five players being honored on Saturday: “These are as fine a young men as you’ll ever coach. They take hard coaching every day, they let us tell them the truth every day, and they’ve done something that’s very hard and turned around a program.”

david.borges@hearstmediact.com