It’s been six years since Portage native Kevin Hurd, then a sophomore guard on the Carroll University men’s basketball team, led the Pioneers on a surprise run to the second round of the NCAA Division III men’s basketball tournament.
That 2012 season ended with a loss to Wittenburg, meaning Hurd’s stay in the tourney lasted but a weekend. But now he’s back, he’ll get at least an extra weekend this time.
Hurd isn’t wearing shorts and sneakers anymore, instead donning a suit and tie as an assistant coach for the UW-Stevens Point men’s basketball team, which will play No. 1 ranked Whitman (Wash.) College Friday night at UW-Platteville in a Sweet 16 game. The Pointers defeated North Central (Ill.) College 72-55 in their opener on Friday, a day before routing Bethany Lutheran 82-44 in Collegeville, Minnesota.
Hurd — who is in his third season as an assistant for UWSP head coach Bob Semling, a Dick Bennett disciple who spent time as an assistant for Bennett in the mid ’90s at UW-Green Bay — said it had been an interesting year for Point leading up to the NCAA tournament.
The Pointers, who are currently ranked 17th, were just 6-5 after dropping a pair of games at a tournament in Las Vegas back in late December. Since then, UWSP went 13-3, including a 59-44 victory over UW-River Falls in the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference tournament championship game Feb. 25 in Stevens Point.
Hurd said the Pointers struggled a bit early on due to a brutal non-conference schedule, and because it just took some time for the young roster to get comfortable.
“You hate to lose five out of 11 games,” Hurd said, “but in those 11 games, we found players and lineups that worked for us and it’s been good to us in league play and down the stretch.”
In fact, one of the players who has stepped up after a slow start — one he endured mostly because of recovery from a preseason injury — is 2017 Beaver Dam High School graduate Garrett Nelson.
The 5-foot-11, 160 pound guard is the lightest player on the roster and one of only three who stand less than 6 feet tall, but he’s averaging 3.4 points and 1.1 assists in 11.8 minutes per game. And after a modest showing against North Central College — Nelson had only two points and an assist in that one — he scored 10 points and led the Pointers in both assists (five) and steals (four) in an 82-44 second-round win over Bethany Lutheran College.
Players weren’t the only ones who had to find their way after the slow start, however — Hurd himself also had to make some adjustments.
Prior to the start of season, Kent Dernbach, the team’s only other assistant coach and a good friend of Hurd’s, left Point to become the head coach at UW-La Crosse. Dernbach’s departure meant Hurd’s responsibilities increased heading into the season.
Hurd said he’s welcomed the increased workload.
“It has been a real challenge. In my opinion, I’m an assistant coach that is doing a lot of things for the best Division III program in the country,” Hurd said. “That can be nerve-wracking and a little overwhelming. I just tried to dive right in and try to do things the way we’ve always done them here. It’s just that we have one less guy.”
Hurd has had to do a little bit of everything as Semling’s right-hand man on the bench. Besides his practice and in-game duties, he has also served as the program’s travel planner, making sure the team has pre-game and post-game meals available and a place to stay on extended road trips.
Hurd’s job also requires him to put together scouting reports on upcoming opponents, and earlier this season he had to coordinate a 60-team youth tournament that the program sponsors each year.
And perhaps Hurd’s most important job is to hit the road to watch and recruit high school players.
“Recruiting is a very thorough process, trying to figure out if we’re the best fit for a student-athlete coming out of high school, or if we’re not,” Hurd said. “That’s part of the job.”
Hurd thinks this year’s team has what it takes to make a run at a national championship. The Pointers are led by junior Cannon O’Heron of Bangor and senior MJ Delmore of Wisconsin Dells, who were both named first-team All-WIAC selections on Wednesday.
Delmore leads UWSP in scoring at 12.1 points per game and led the WIAC in free throw shooting, making 89.2 percent of his attempts. He’ll enter Friday night’s game having made 43 straight free throws.
The always-confident Hurd, who said he once made 39 straight free throws during his freshman year at Carroll, and was an 84 percent free throw shooter in his four years with the Pioneers, said he thinks he could beat Delmore in a free throw contest. But he has the utmost confidence in the 5-foot-10 guard.
“I didn’t even know he had that streak going. I just know at the end of the game, you get him the ball, because he can really knock them in,” Hurd said. “He’s playing like one of those seniors that doesn’t want to go home.”
Hurd, who also spent one year as a graduate assistant at Minot State in North Dakota prior to going to Point, is enjoying the coaching life and has no plans to change professions any time soon. His goal is to earn a head coaching position somewhere down the road.
But for now, he knows he’s in a good spot working for Semling, who was an assistant at Point when the Pointers won back-to-back national titles in 2004 and 2005 and has two more national titles (2010 and 2015) in his first 12 years running the show. He also entered this year with the highest winning percentage (.787) among active DIII coaches and 10th all-time across all divisions for coaches with at least 10 seasons as a head coach.
“I love what I do and I plan on sticking with it,” Hurd said. “Sure, I would love to be calling the shots some day, but right now I’m learning from one of the best and just trying to soak it all in and eventually I will get to where I need to be.”