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Mike Anthony: Hartford to see what it's made of against Zion Williamson, Coach K, Duke

Hartford Courant 2018-12-05 11:30:00

John Gallagher and the Hartford basketball team arrived in Durham, N.C., Tuesday afternoon.

On Wednesday night, they will take the Cameron Indoor Stadium court for a payday and, we know this, a clobbering. A Zion Williamson highlight reel is forthcoming.

“Let’s try to keep the windmill dunks at five,” Gallagher said.

In the first half?

“Yeah,” Gallagher said, laughing.

Sometimes it’s OK to just have to fun on the job, even in an impossible spot. The Hawks, who have never made the NCAA Tournament, against the Blue Devils, among the most decorated programs in history? It’s such an impossible spot for Gallagher and his guys that it’s entertaining.

“If you can’t make light of it, why are you even doing it?” Gallagher said.

A guarantee of $90,000 is one primary reason. Important experience of one kind for a team hoping to succeed in its own mid-major world come March is another. Surreal experience of another kind – against Coach K, in front of the Cameron Crazies, on ESPN2 – is yet another.

Hartford has never made the NCAA Tournament. Duke has won five national titles. Gallagher’s nine-year record at Hartford, one of the most difficult places to win in the nation, is 109-154. Mike Krzyzewski’s 38-year record at Duke is 1,034-280. Overall, he has 1,107 victories, most in his sport’s history.

The Blue Devils (7-1) are ranked third this season and the play of hulking freshman Williamson – “a cross between LeBron James and Charles Barkley,” Gallagher said – has captivated the nation. Rarely have we seen a combination of such power and overall athletic ability, clear-the-way type stuff.

And now Hartford is in his crosshair and this could be a painful two hours. Senior John Carroll (6 feet 8, 220 pounds) will be the primary defender on Williamson (6-7, 285).

“John Carroll is one of the toughest kids I've ever coached,” Gallagher said. “He could play on any ACC team and he's one of the best players in our league. I expect John to compete. He is not a shy guy.”

Yeah, well, this is something different than Hartford has faced, than most anyone has faced. Carroll is a heck of a player. Williamson, likely the top pick in the next NBA draft, is a generational talent who looks like he’s set to crack the backboard every time he heads into the open court.

Hartford (3-6) has losses to in-state rivals Central Connecticut and Sacred Heart, as well as then-No. 18 Mississippi State (by 18). Duke is 7-1, its only loss coming to top-ranked Gonzaga by two.

“We have to be ready to perform our best because you can get really embarrassed,” Gallagher said. “Some of the best teams in the country have been embarrassed by them – Indiana (by 21), Kentucky (by 34). You want to win the game, but you want to win the game playing Hartford basketball, and if you don't win the game you have to play Hartford basketball. You can't do something out of character.”

Gallagher then quoted friend Coleman Ruiz, a former Navy Seal who runs team-building programs.

“He says, ‘At the end of the day the pawns and the kings end up in the same place,’” Gallagher said. “He has another one: ‘Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast. Slow down.’ You can't play fast. You've got to play slow and you’ll end up playing fast. This game, the atmosphere, you can't treat this any differently. You have to prepare for it like it's another game and the feel of it, the energy in the building will take on its own [life].”

There really is nothing to lose for Hartford, which entered this season amid high expectations after a 2017-18 third-place finish in the America East. Gallagher was named the conference’s co-coach of the year (with Vermont’s John Becker) and the Hawks lost a conference tournament semifinal to UMBC, which went on become the first No. 16 seed to defeat a No. 1 seed (Virginia) in the NCAA Tournament.

It comes down to this for the Hawks: They have to spend the conference season, which begins Jan. 9 against UMBC, positioning themselves well and then win three consecutive tournament games to make program history.

“We have one goal and we all know it,” said Gallagher, who is under contract through 2020-21. “It is attainable. This is a year we need to be judged in February and March. We were 3-6 last year and we won 19 games. I'm not worried about the record. I'm worried about conference play. I think this is a year we just have to focus on what it's going to take to get to the NCAA Tournament. We have the talent. … You don't ask to play Duke, Duke asks to play you. They asked us, so they must think we're OK.”

Hartford won’t win Wednesday even though Gallagher will show up thinking it will. He might be the most optimistic person in the history of team sports and he’ll probably wake up Thursday thinking about a rematch in an NCAA Tournament 1-16 game.

“It’s just my personality,” he said. “Any time you get a chance to be on a stage like this, you want to represent yourself well. We have seniors and 23-year-old men.”

But … Zion, Coach K, all that. Gallagher is realistic.

“Saying [you can win] it is one thing,” he said. “Going there and doing it is another. It's going to be surreal. You want to enjoy the experience.”