Assistant coach Kenya Hunter leaving Nebraska basketball to join Dan Hurley’s UConn staff

Assistant coach Kenya Hunter leaving Nebraska basketball to join Dan Hurley’s UConn staff
Nebraska basketball assistant Kenya Hunter joined the Husker staff in June of 2013. (The Associated Press)

LINCOLN — Kenya Hunter’s desire to become a Division I head basketball coach is why he is leaving Nebraska as an assistant after five years to join longtime national power Connecticut as an assistant.

“Sometimes, you have to be a little selfish in going for your goals,’’ Hunter said Monday afternoon. “I just thought getting back into my region would make it easier.

“I’m not typically known as a Midwest guy. This opportunity to get back to the northeast will help me in my career.’’

Hunter, a native of Arlington, Virginia, played college ball at Duquesne in Pittsburgh. He has coached or worked in basketball operations at Duquesne (two years), North Carolina State (four), Xavier (three) and Georgetown (six).

Since arriving from Georgetown, Hunter has done much of the heavy lifting in Nebraska recruiting.

Among the players he landed were current All-Big Ten guard James Palmer, honorable mention All-Big Ten forward Isaac Copeland, center Jordy Tshimanga, guard Thomas Allen and incoming four-star point guard Xavier Johnson, along with prior transfers Andrew White and Anton Gill.

What is Hunter’s message for the eight players who return from Nebraska’s 22-11 team that went 13-5 in the Big Ten?

“They are in good standing here,’’ he said. “Nobody should leave this program. And I mean nobody.

“They’ve got a really good team, and I’m not encouraging anyone to go. If they stay intact, they can make a run at this league and get it done.’’

Nebraska tried hard to keep Hunter. Sources told The World-Herald that NU countered with a $320,000 annual salary — a $20,000 raise — and a title of associate head coach.

The players met with Hunter on Sunday, including a one-on-one with Copeland, who Hunter recruited to Georgetown before his transfer to Nebraska.

“I’ve left Isaac twice now, but wasn’t mad at me at all,’’ Hunter said. “He knows what a great opportunity he has at Nebraska and that this is a good environment for him. That felt good.

“But I’m close to all of them, not just guys I recruited. I want them all to get better every day. Those guys know where my heart is.’’

Now, Hunter will go out and recruit for a brand name that resonates nationwide.

“When I went up to UConn,’’ he said, “once you walk into their practice facility, the amount of NBA guys and great players who have been through there and winning a national championship four years ago — and they have four of those — is really impressive.

“It’s not easier there because you have to work no matter where you are. But the brand name and the tradition of winning there will be good to work from. I’m excited about it.’’

Hunter said he didn’t pursue a job, but noted he had many feelers directed toward him at the Final Four.

“Nothing really stuck out to me,’’ he said.

Then a domino effect kicked in. Dan Hurley left Rhode Island to take the UConn job. One of Hurley’s assistants, David Cox, took over at Rhode Island. Cox and Hunter had worked together at Georgetown, so Hurley dug in on what Cox knew of Hunter.

“A lot of times in our business, it’s more word of mouth,’’ Hunter said. “It wasn’t like Hurley had been recruiting me for weeks. Things just started to fall into place.’’

This is the second time Nebraska coach Tim Miles has lost an assistant to the Hurley coaching family. Two years ago, Rasho Burno left after 50 days to join Bobby Hurley at Arizona State.

Another attraction for Hunter at UConn was the hiring of assistant Kimani Young from Minnesota. Young, with strong New York recruiting ties, is close friends with Hunter, who wants to broaden his connections that mostly have been concentrated in the Washington, D.C., area and North Carolina.

Leaving Lincoln and the coaching staff at NU won’t be easy, Hunter said.

“I have a special place in my heart for Nebraska,’’ he said.