Those who know Bobby Hurley were not surprised that his Buffalo team played mighty Kentucky so competitively last season.
Buffalo led 38-33 at halftime, thus becoming the first of only nine opponents all season to hold a second-half lead against Kentucky. Although eventually winning 71-52, UK knew it had been in a game.
“To me, that’s Bobby Hurley,” Tommy Amaker told ESPN.com last spring. “His belief and confidence will rub off on you as a player.”
On Saturday, Hurley again brings that willpower to Rupp Arena. He now coaches Arizona State, a team of hardened veterans he no doubt hopes can play with belief and confidence.
Recalling how Buffalo played Kentucky so well, Hurley said, “I had kids who had a lot of heart and a lot of toughness, and played fearlessly. And that’s why I think we were able to hang in there as long as we did.”
Hurley, who first made his mark nationally as a tough-minded point guard for Duke, has tried to instill competitiveness in his first Arizona State team in each day’s practice. “There’s usually wins and losses every day,” he said.
His playing style reflected a concentration on winning.
“Bob’s greatest asset was never his jump shot or his speed or his vertical jump,” younger brother Danny Hurley told ESPN.com. “It was always that he was an incredibly daring competitor, and I think you saw that in his (Buffalo) team from beginning to end.”
Bobby Hurley recalled a time when his belief in team and self was shaken. That happened when Sean Woods made the shot that put Kentucky ahead of Duke 103-102 with 2.1 seconds left in the 1992 East Region finals.
“Sometimes, I believe in, like, fate and karma and what’s meant to be,” Hurley said. “And sometimes it’s not. That’s how I kind of felt walking back to that huddle.”
During the timeout, Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski renewed his players’ faith. “That Zen, that ability to motivate,” Hurley called it. “The ability to convince enough people that it can be done. And we would trust what he would say.”
As UK fans know all too well, Duke won the game when Christian Laettner made the most famous buzzer-beating shot in college basketball history.
Bob’s greatest asset was never his jump shot or his speed or his vertical jump. It was always that he was an incredibly daring competitor, and I think you saw that in his (Buffalo) team from beginning to end.
Danny Hurley, Bobby’s younger brother
Hurley is a product of two renowned coaches. His father, Bob Hurley, has won more than 1,000 games and 27 New Jersey state championships for St. Anthony’s High School. And, of course, Krzyzewski is the winningest coach in college basketball history with 1,000 victories and counting.
From his father, Hurley said he learned the value of preparation and how losing can burn deep into the soul.
“I learned to internalize winning and losing,” Hurley said, “and to take it very personal.”
From Krzyzewski, Hurley learned the value of a coach connecting with his players.
“I try to connect with the guys that I coach through hard work,” Hurley said. “Through humor. Through different ways that I can relate to them to get them to play for me.”
With such a background, Hurley would seem a coaching natural. He should have picked up a whistle immediately after setting down the ball. But that wasn’t the case. Instead, he worked as a scout, then ran a horse farm in Florida.
“Coaching had been in his DNA,” former Duke teammate Grant Hill said last spring. “He ran away from it for a little bit.”
Hurley explained his initial reluctance to become a coach as a reaction to how his NBA career ended so abruptly and so prematurely and almost tragically. He had to quit playing after nearly dying in a car accident early in his rookie season with the Sacramento Kings.
“I was embarrassed by how my professional career ended and very frustrated by that,” Hurley said.
He also wondered how much else he had to give to basketball. “Feeling like I had squeezed the lemon dry as a player,” he said. “And just kind of needed time to get away from basketball.”
After working as an assistant for his brother, Hurley became Buffalo’s coach in 2013. The program had a record of 285-369 (.436) in 22 previous seasons in Division I. In Hurley’s two seasons, Buffalo had a record of 42-20.
Hurley described the first eight games as Arizona State coach as a roller-coaster ride: the high of a 67-54 whipping of SEC contender Texas A&M, the low of a 66-63 loss to Sacramento State on opening night.
The Sun Devils (6-2) have eight players who average between 6.6 and 13.4 points, between 18 and 33 minutes per game. Of those eight players, three are seniors and three are juniors.
The players he’s worked with at Arizona State, and Buffalo make Hurley, 44, second-guess his decision to step away from basketball for a while.
“I wish I could turn it back and do it sooner,” he said of becoming a coach. “Because I can’t really explain to you how rewarding it is to do what I’m doing. . . . There’s nothing that really compares to it.”