STORRS, Conn. – The annual Husky Run, a 3.1-mile jaunt over the hilly terrain of campus, is one of the grand traditions of the Connecticut basketball program. It was started by Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun, a former marathon runner, and remains an important rite of passage under Kevin Ollie.
Over the years, star guards Kemba Walker, Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright have been among the ordained leaders of the UConn congregation who have given brief sermons, so to speak, before the run begins. Wednesday outside Gampel Pavilion, a new voice set the stage with a short but important message to the fans and students who took the challenge of the run along with the basketball team.
It was sophomore forward Daniel Hamilton, the low-key, laid back sophomore from Los Angeles, who barely spoke above a whisper as a freshman. He thanked everyone for coming out to participate. Then he said what the people wanted to hear.
“Last year was a disappointment, but we expect to do better things this year,” Hamilton said, referring to the UConn team that ended its season with a first-round NIT loss to Arizona State – just one season after winning the NCAA national championship.
Then Hamilton proved how serious he is about turning things around. He was the first UConn player to cross the finish line, flashing a little style by turning around and breaking the tape while running backwards.
He told reporters he had called his own victory over the past two weeks and then put his 20-minute, 31-second performance where his words had been.
“I’m in the best shape of my life,” Hamilton said. “I’m ready to come in and lead and just win, that’s the main thing. We win, everybody’s having fun and everybody looks good.”
Center Amida Brimah won the run last year and gave the welcoming speech. Brimah was held out of the event Wednesday as a precautionary measure after rolling his ankle in practice. Ollie has already decided Brimah will be one of his captains this season. Don’t be surprised if Hamilton receives a similar designation before UConn’s first game. He seems to be earning it already.
“He’s doing a great job being vocal, being out front, pushing guys,” Ollie said. “It’s just maturity. After your freshman year, your sophomore year you feel more comfortable in that role. You know what you’ve got to do as a basketball player, and as a student.
“He’s just coming out of his shell, being more vocal, challenging guys. He repeatedly challenges. That’s one of the pillars of our program, and he’s doing that great.”
Hamilton should be a contender this season for the American Athletic Conference Player of the Year. He has the versatility that could make him the most watched player at any game. With consistency and a reduction of turnovers, Hamilton’s game should be high on the “pleasant on the eye” list of national fans.
“I averaged almost two turnovers a game last season,” Hamilton said. “And I’m not even a point guard.”
Hamilton went back to California for the summer. He ran on the beach in Santa Monica to strengthen himself and learned from NBA players Reggie Jackson (Pistons), Trevor Ariza (Rockets), Marcus Williams (overseas) and Chase Budinger (Pacers).
Junior guard Rodney Purvis sees a big difference in Hamilton. And he was happy to see his teammate being more vocal before the run.
“That gets me going,” Purvis said. “I’m always the loud one. I’m proud I’ve got a partner now.”
Purvis and Hamilton have had some epic one-on-one battles since returning to campus.
“Daniel can be a really good defender,” Purvis said. He’s really tough to score on. If he puts his mind to it, he could be one of the best defenders in the country. Slowly but surely, he’s realizing how good he can be. He did a good job over the summer. He took several leaps and he’s just tremendous now.”
Ollie has more depth and more options than he had last season. But Hamilton, with all his athletic ability, figures to be the top option almost all of the time.
“He’s going to be on everybody’s list to stop,” Ollie said. “Ryan Boatright had the big star on his name but now Daniel is going to have that star on his name. The good thing is we’re going to have a lot of those guys. It’s not just going to be one guy.
“I think he always had confidence [in] how good he could be. It’s just putting in the work in, seeing the results. I think he saw some great results last year. But he definitely wants to improve on shooting percentage, being a better decision maker, taking better shots. He did some wonderful things last year. Now you’ve just got to take what you do and build upon it and do it even better.”