SACRAMENTO — Dan Hurley spent his formative years learning basketball from one of its greatest teachers: his father, Bob Hurley Sr., the Naismith Hall of Fame coach of the legendary St. Anthony High Friars in Jersey City. And while the Friars have produced plenty of big-name players over the years — including Dan and his brother, Bobby — the fundamental values of the program have never changed: namely, that basketball games are won through ferocity, intensity, physicality and a commitment to defense.
Those are the values Dan Hurley has taken with him to the various stops in his own coaching career, beginning at St. Benedict’s Prep in New Jersey, which he turned into a national power, before spending two years at Wagner College and then heading to the University of Rhode Island in 2012. Those are the values that propelled the Rams on Friday to their first NCAA tournament victory since 1998.
With his father and his brother Bobby watching from the stands, Hurley’s Rhode Island team, the No. 11 seed in the Midwest Region, battered and bruised No. 6 Creighton on its way to an 84-72 victory in the program’s first NCAA tournament appearance in 18 years. The Rams advanced to face No. 3 seed Oregon on Sunday for spot in the Sweet 16 and a trip to Kansas City next weekend.
“I think we’re built in the image of my family,” Hurley said. “Obviously, we’re all very intense, very passionate about basketball, very passionate about helping young people develop. And I think we also … this team reflects a little bit of the city I grew up in, Jersey City.
“Hard-nosed group of players that plays as hard as any team in the country, and these guys are high-level players, too. When you add high-level players and then they play with grit — real, true grit — you have a chance to have something really great.”
The Rams (25-9) earned the victory with the same smash-mouth style that powered them to wins over St. Bonaventure, Davidson and Virginia Commonwealth in Pittsburgh last week to claim the Atlantic 10 tournament championship. And, as usual, that effort was led by senior forward Hassan Martin.
The Atlantic 10’s two-time defensive player of the year, the 6-foot-7 Martin went toe-to-toe with Creighton freshman center Justin Patton — a projected mid-first-round pick in the upcoming NBA draft — and more than held his own, finishing with 12 points, eight rebounds, two assists, two steals and a block while holding Patton to eight points and seven rebounds in 21 minutes before he fouled out.
“He’s a great player, but my mind-set coming in here was to be real physical with him,” Martin said. “I knew he wasn’t all that strong of a guy, but he’s real tall, so I knew I had to push him off the block, box him out real hard, and that’s what I did, and got him in foul trouble and he fouled out.”
It was far from a one-man effort, though. All five Rhode Island starters finished in double-figures, led 23 points from Jeff Dowtin, a freshman from St. John’s College High in the District, and 17 from senior Kuran Iverson. The Rams held Creighton (25-10) without a field goal for the opening 4:49 and led wire-to-wire.
As a sign of appreciation for the effort all five starters put in, Hurley brought them all to the podium postgame.
“That win was about these guys to my right,” Hurley said at the postgame news conference. “These guys were awesome. We really showed our depth, and really just wore on them with our defensive intensity and playmaking.”
The Hurley family influence on the program will extend beyond the team’s image and identity on the court, as well, with Rhode Island moving on to face Oregon. Bobby, the head coach at Arizona State, faced the Ducks twice this season — including last week in the Pac-12 tournament quarterfinals — and Dan said he would be leaning on his brother for support over the next 36 hours or so before Sunday’s game.
“Obviously, we’re going to hustle now, and I’m going to lean on brother Bob for a little Pac-12 intel,” Dan Hurley said with a smile. “They played them very well at Oregon and played them really well in the first half, in particular, in the Pac-12 tournament.
“Bob is here and now it becomes — it was a vacation-type trip for him, and now it becomes a working trip for Bob. I don’t know if he’s allowed to unofficially join our staff … gotta check with compliance.”
Whether he’s officially part of Rhode Island’s staff for the next 48 hours or not is irrelevant. The team is infused with Hurley DNA, and the toughness and grit that personifies the name on the playgrounds and streets of Jersey City. And it’s that same DNA that propelled the Rams to a win Friday, and the hope for more beyond it.