Bobby Hurley Q&A: How Former Duke Legend Has Become CBB's Hottest New Coach

C.J. Moore@@CJMooreHoopsCollege Basketball National Lead WriterDecember 15, 2017

Arizona State head coach Bobby Hurley during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Arizona, Saturday, March 4, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

Bobby Hurley is once again running the best show in college basketball. He was there at Duke when Mike Krzyzewski finally pushed through and won a national championship in 1991 and for the repeat in 1992.

Now the NCAA's all-time assist leader is pulling the strings on the sidelines at Arizona State. Sorry, that's fifth-ranked Arizona State.

The Sun Devils did not get one vote in the preseason Associated Press Top 25, and that's understandable. In Hurley's first two years in Tempe, his team went 30-35.

But this season the Sun Devils are 9-0 and fresh off a win against Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse. They play fast, shoot a ton of threes and are averaging 91.8 points per game. Their resume, which includes four wins over teams ranked in the top 50 at KenPom.com (Kansas, St. John's, Xavier and Kansas State) is arguably the best in the country. If AP voters simply voted off results, ASU should probably be No. 1. (Five voters put them there last week.)

After winning on Sunday at KU, Hurley brought senior guards Tra Holder and Shannon Evans along with freshman guard Remy Martin to the press conference wearing "Guard U" T-shirts. The three ran circles around the Jayhawks, playing with freedom as they combined for 72 points and 14 assists.

On Wednesday, Hurley talked to Bleacher Report about the program's turnaround, his coaching influences, his freewheeling style and the birth of a new slogan: Guard U.

Bleacher Report: What was it about Arizona State that attracted to you to the job?

Bobby Hurley: It's a great conference, and the style of the conference is very free-flowing, offensive-minded, and I thought it suited me in terms of how I like to coach and allow my teams to play. That was a match right away, and then getting to know the people—[senior associate athletic director] Dave Cohen and [athletic director] Ray Anderson—and talking with them about their vision for men's basketball at Arizona State.

When I was at Buffalo my second year, the year we went to the NCAA tournament, I came out here to play Grand Canyon in one of our nonconference games. We happened to practice at ASU and [I] just was really impressed with their facilities, the practice facilities especially. Our Weatherup Center is as good as anybody's. It's a great setup for guys to get better. It was a lot of factors really. I had been out on the West Coast playing for the [Sacramento] Kings, and I was familiar with being out west and the Phoenix area. Certainly the size of the school also was a real positive. It was everything I was looking for. 

           

B/R: What did the timeline in your head look like as far as when you could realistically start competing for NCAA tournament bids?

Hurley: Coach [Herb] Sendek had done a great job. He had great kids in the program that made my transition the first year a little easier. We battled through some injuries and we weren't that deep, but we had some early success that year. Just looking at UCLA, Oregon, Arizona and USC, the talent that those teams had, I knew we had to make some upgrades and it was going to take some time to get where they were.

      

B/R: Most of your life you've been a part of great teams. How did you handle the losing? Did the year you spent at Rhode Island with your brother help? (Hurley worked for his brother, Dan, when he took over a struggling Rhode Island program and went 8-21 in the first year.) 

Hurley: Every year I was with him, I learned from Dan, and he's one of the great coaches, I think, in college basketball, and basketball in general. Just to see how he ran his program really prepared me to become a head coach. But there is no real preparation when you're not getting to where you want to get. It tests your patience, and you might even start to question how you do things.

No matter what happened, I think we kind of ingrained in our players that losing wasn't acceptable, and we had some hard practices and a lot of film study. That's kind of rubbed off on the seniors and their approach this year. We've all taken some lumps together, and I think they'd had enough of it. The way they're playing—Evans, Holder and [Kodi] Justice—they are consistently really driving this thing right now, and it's just special to see them, after what they've been through, play at the level they're playing at right now.

Bobby's brother Dan after winning the Atlantic 10 Tournament
Bobby's brother Dan after winning the Atlantic 10 TournamentJoe Sargent/Getty Images

B/R: Have you changed your approach now that they are successful?

Hurley: We meet more. We met a lot last year. We've really gotten closer. The three seniors we meet quite a bit to talk about messaging and things I want to get through to the team. The week ahead of us, we'll usually meet and talk about what's in front of us. There's a real connection there, and I think we're really on the same page. They've put a lot of work in, and they've worked extremely hard on their games the last two years.

Everyone talks about freshmen and the impact of freshmen, and that's the new thing. But these guys have really embraced getting better each year, and as seniors, they've all made big jumps in their game across the board to help put us in this position right now.

         

B/R: Stylistically, what was your vision?

Hurley: Kind of what you're seeing, spreading the court and having guys that can shoot it and go off the dribble. It makes it very difficult to match up against us. And then to have way more of a presence than we've had inside. We had a guy, Obinna Oleka, who put up good numbers for us and was really good, but he was undersized. He's a 3 [or] 4, and I had him playing the 5 because I had no choice.

This year we have a true inside complement to the perimeter guys with Romello White, and his ability to finish and rebound. And then we have [De'Quon] Lake, and he provides shot blocking and rebounding, and he's a very bouncy athlete. Those two guys have made a big difference for us. That's probably the main difference.

        

B/R: Have you tried to recruit to that style? 

Hurley: I want guys that you can tell love to play and want to get better. They enjoy getting in the gym and working on their game. You hope to find people like that. With the seniors, you know that they're doing it and have done it at such a high level and you're happy for them. But then you're saying, "Uh-oh, they're seniors. What's going to happen when they're gone?"

Then you see Remy Martin and feel very fortunate that you were able to see the special gifts that he has. If you have a guy like that in the program that's young, that you're going to move forward with—he's got an electric, dynamic personality and charisma to how he plays, and it's infectious with his teammates.

         

B/R: Your brother's teams have rarely ever taken a lot of threes. You shot a good number at Duke but never really did in the NBA. At Buffalo, your teams didn't take a ton of threes. Why have your teams at Arizona State shot so many?

Hurley: You evaluate your team and put together a system or a style that makes sense. When I got here, I knew that Evans wanted to come here [as a transfer from Buffalo], and I liked what I saw from Justice and Holder as freshmen. You kind of know what their skill sets are and you know eventually this is how you're going to play. Kind of spread your opponent out, because you've got guys who can shoot NBA threes and they're all so good off the bounce, getting in the lane and making plays.

It's kind of a byproduct of who you have in the program, and year to year you're going to tweak how you play just based on who is in the program.

       

B/R: What's Coach K's influence on you and your coaching? Anything you learned from him you've tried to instill?

Hurley: I just think it was hard. Practices were hard. Film study wasn't always fun. Then the same thing goes with my dad, playing for him. You realize all the work that gets put in and how you have to attack practice and preparation, getting ready for games. Once you put the work in, what I learned from Coach K is just that he trusted me and trusted us to make plays. He was willing to give up control, which is a hard thing to do as a coach.

But I've given up control through a lot of different stages in the game. I let my players play pretty freely because I trust that they're going to make good plays out there. I think he did the same for me, and I really got a lot in that regard from Coach K.

BLOOMINGTON, IN - NOVEMBER 29: Head coach Mike Krzyzewski of the Duke Blue Devils is seen before the game against the Indiana Hoosiers at Assembly Hall on November 29, 2017 in Bloomington, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
Michael Hickey/Getty Images

B/R: What about your father? How has he influenced your coaching?

Hurley: My dad was always learning about the game. We always watched the game together. He just loves basketball. He never stopped learning, picking up a new drill. The humility he had about not feeling like he knew everything—I'm always feeling like I'm still learning and developing as a coach.

Then also, there's no one who hated to lose more than my dad. At a high school level, at the program he coached, his winning percentage was almost 90 percent, which is unrealistic in college. He took it very personal every time he lost. Our whole family felt it every time growing up my whole life. When it comes to basketball and these games, I take it extremely personal, and I think a lot of that was developed when I was young in the Hurley house.

       

B/R: Most Power Five teams, especially when it's a rebuild, play fluff schedules. Why did you do it differently? 

Hurley: Why would you fool around and pretend that you are something that you're probably not? If you're not challenging yourself and putting your players in tough situations that they have to respond [to], it may not always end well for you. There's going to be bad results. We had a lot of bad results last year. But I firmly believe that Holder, Evans and Justice all learned something from those losses somehow, and it's made a difference now.

For this year in particular, having your younger players like Remy Martin go to Kansas and deal with that crowd and those players and that coach, to have that experience under his belt before you get to league play or the NCAA tournament, I think those are huge advantages.

         

B/R: What's it like to win like this after what you've been through?

Hurley: It's sweeter just because there are no guarantees. I'm very much trying to stay grounded and respectful of the rest of the year. It is sweet, and it feels sweet to have these victories. Not only Kansas, but to win a tournament championship. That's what we're striving to do, and winning that in [Las] Vegas against Xavier and Kansas State—and St. John's was another big game on a neutral court. It's been great because the success piece wasn't there last year. These games, the results were much different. So you appreciate the whole journey and what you've had to go through to get here. 

        

B/R: The freedom you give your guards, is that how you wanted to be coached?

Hurley: I did. I loved playing for Coach K that way. We averaged, like, 90 a game my junior year, and that was the year we went back-to-back. Guys were racing to get out in the open court so we could make plays, and then [Christian] Laettner, he would try to slow us down so he could get the ball inside because he didn't want us to forget about him. Playing that way, I want my guys to play on instinct, and they get excited to play when they're not looking over their shoulder when they make a mistake or if they miss a shot because I think, over the long haul, they're going to make more plays than negative plays.

       

B/R: I noticed you guys had the "Guards U" shirts on after the Kansas win. When did those shirts get made?

Hurley: Look, we were on cloud nine after the Xavier win in Vegas, and the coaches were together, and one of our administrators, I told him we could just be Guard U here. We play a lot of small guys. Then everyone said, "Oh, that's interesting." I don't have a lot of great ideas like that. That's not my deal usually, but the players liked it when we presented it to them, and we decided to go with it for now.

B/R: So it's not a response to Point Guard U at all? (Arizona often refers to itself as "Point Guard U.")

Hurley: You can interpret it in different ways, which I like. I don't want to specifically say [we're only guards] because I think Romello White is doing pretty well. He's going to have a really good career inside. He's averaging 16 [points] and nine [rebounds] as a freshman. So there's room for big guys to do good here too, so it's like Guard U for the guards but also from a defensive standpoint, a couple different meanings I guess.

         

B/R: How do you see Arizona? How much does that rivalry matter to you?

Hurley: You hear about it locally. Our fanbase and their fanbase [are] very passionate about it. I think if you ask me, it's an important game because of how good and consistently excellent that program has been. They have one of the best coaches in the country, and they're always right there in the NCAA tournament. In that regard, it means a lot in the game. I don't get caught up in the emotion of the rivalry and that stuff.

       

B/R: Only 11 teams in 15 seasons have beat Bill Self in Allen Fieldhouse. What was it like to win there?

Hurley: I was in awe really of everything. Everyone lining up hours before the game when we pulled in, it was unbelievable. The way the fans conducted themselves during the game, it was like a professional crowd—very polite crowd, but very knowledgeable about basketball and high-energy. It was a great environment, and we knew how difficult it would be, but it was amazing because they're really good, and I think they're going to continue to get better as the year goes along. It was special.

       

B/R: This is all happened pretty fast this year—the climb up the rankings, the attention—what's it like?

Hurley: That's the thing, it's gone from zero to 100 here. Now the next step is to just try to get back to work and try to get back to normal preparation. We had our first practice yesterday, and there were no signs that anyone was satisfied. Everyone went about their business just as I hoped. We just hope to continue to do that the rest of the week, but there's no doubt that our fanbase and our students, our administration [are] really, really excited right now.

I've never seen this type of enthusiasm here or anything close to it, so I'm just thankful that it's happened.

         

B/R: When you were at Duke, there were no cellphones and no social media. It's a lot easier for people to reach you these days. Have you ever experienced anything like what I imagine has happened the last few days?

Hurley: After the Kansas game and what we'd already done at Xavier and some other games, I mean, I was scared to look at my phone right after that game because I just knew what was in front of me—all the people who had reached out. It's very similar to when my Buffalo team won the MAC championship and was going to the NCAA tournament in terms of people reaching out. I felt blessed that was happening. It took me a couple hours to get through everything. It felt terrific.

I know our players have been through a lot and some dark times, hard times, so I'm happy they're getting this kind of exposure and people feel good about them.

      

B/R: What's the goal this season? Has it changed?

Hurley: We've kind of been raising the bar here as we've been going on. I just think we just have to continue to stay in the moment and not look ahead. The season is a funny thing; a lot of things change throughout the year. Teams get better; teams regress. Guys that were out for injury come back, and we have some of that going on. We just have to focus on that, and I know how competitive my players are. They are incredibly competitive. I know when the lights are on, they're going to show up and compete every night, and that's all I can hope for now.

C.J. Moore covers college basketball at the national level for Bleacher Report. You can find him on Twitter @CJMooreHoops.

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