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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    A Season Of Ups And Downs For UConn Men’s Basketball Team

    March 24–Four months ago, they grabbed your attention with three consecutive wins in a 2,400-seat gymnasium in Maui. Two weeks ago, they rose from oblivion with five consecutive wins in the World’s Most Famous Arena.

    In between, they were infuriating and exhilarating. They were carried by one of the best players in the country and they navigated through the growing pains of their freshman class.

    As they take the court in Anaheim, Calif., Thursday night, the UConn men’s basketball team is one of the final 16 left in the NCAA Tournament. If Jim Calhoun’s team can defeat San Diego State, it will advance to the Elite Eight for the fifth time in 10 years and the ninth time in Calhoun’s 25-year tenure in Storrs.

    But this ride has been perhaps the most improbable and unpredictable.

    From the night that the team was introduced to fans at its first practice while its coach was testifying before the NCAA, through its historic run in the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden, nothing about their year’s Huskies has been conventional. But much has been satisfying.

    “”I can’t say it’s a shock to me, because it isn’t,”” Calhoun said Wednesday from Anaheim. “”When I look at my players, and this sometimes can be a conflict between them and myself, I never look at what they are, I kind of look at what they can be. … And we’re playing the best basketball right now, and everything that could happen good has happened good.””

    UConn (28-9) has won seven games in a row after ending the season with four losses in five games. The team’s national ranking, which peaked at No. 4 in December, plummeted to No. 21 at the end of the regular season.

    But the Huskies have found a rhythm at the most important time of year. With junior Kemba Walker playing as well as any player in the country and the team getting contributions from an array of less-experienced players, UConn has been on a roll. And it has been fun for everyone, including the coach.

    “”He’s definitely having fun,”” Walker said. “”We’re winning. There is nothing more fun than winning. He’s extremely cool off the court. He is such a competitor and he has a passion for the game, that’s why he’s like that on the court sometimes. He does what is best for his team.””

    It’s a long way from a Wednesday in October, when the Big East Conference coaches selected UConn to finish 10th in the league at the preseason media day in New York. It was just five days after the program’s annual First Night unfolded in Storrs when Calhoun was in Indianapolis answering charges that his program broke NCAA recruiting rules.

    With the NCAA investigation hovering over the program and expectations low for the team, Calhoun, 68, was predictably feisty when his fellow coaches slotted the Huskies so low.

    “”We’re Connecticut,”” Calhoun said at the time. “”We don’t belong there.””

    A month later, he was proved correct. After starting the season with wins over Stony Brook and Vermont, UConn found its swagger at the Maui Invitational. The Huskies opened with a win over Wichita State before a stunning upset of No. 2 Michigan State, a victory paced by Walker’s 30 points.

    In the title game in Hawaii, Walker scored 29 points and UConn defeated No. 8 Kentucky by 17 points. In the span of three days, UConn and Walker no longer were on an island; they had elbowed their way into the national conversation.

    “”The Maui tournament gave us the confidence to compete with the big dogs in college basketball,”” Walker said Wednesday.

    Indeed, it was a resounding statement from a team that was coming off an 18-16 season in which it did not earn an NCAA Tournament invitation. And after failing to crack the Associated Press Top 25 poll in the first two weeks of the season, UConn rose to No. 7 after Maui.

    But it didn’t take long for fans to understand that things would not come easy. In its first game after Maui, UConn trailed New Hampshire by a point at halftime before plodding to a 62-55 victory over an overmatched opponent.

    It took another 30-point performance from Walker for UConn to survive the scare. But as the calendar turned to December, UConn sliced through its preconference schedule with wins over a succession of inferior opponents: Maryland-Baltimore County, Fairleigh Dickinson, Coppin State and Harvard.

    By Christmas, UConn was 10-0 and ranked fourth in the country while Walker was ahead of the field in the national Player of the Year competition.

    But the conference schedule brought the first blemish — a 78-63 loss to Pittsburgh on Dec. 27. A loss at Notre Dame on Jan. 4 dropped the Huskies to 11-2 and down to No. 10 in the national rankings.

    There was a six-game winning streak in January, including victories over Top 25 opponents Texas and Villanova. UConn was fifth in the country as February arrived and its youth was rapidly maturing — freshman Jeremy Lamb scored 24 points in a win over Marquette on Jan. 25.

    The last game in January wound up changing the course of the season. On Jan. 29, Louisville scratched out a 79-78 double-overtime win at Gampel Pavilion in a game in which UConn led by nine with less than nine minutes left and by four with less than 30 seconds left in the first overtime.

    With poor shot selection and sporadic defense, UConn looked inexperienced. And with Walker struggling (7 of 23 shooting), the Huskies were rudderless.

    “”It’s an incredibly disappointing loss,”” Calhoun said after the game.

    It also sent UConn on a free fall. The Huskies lost six of their next 10 and were out of sorts for much of February. Meanwhile, the long-awaited NCAA ruling on the recruiting violations was issued on Feb. 22 — the committee on infractions punished UConn with recruiting restrictions and a loss of a scholarship, and by placing the program on probation.

    And, most notably, Calhoun was suspended for the first three Big East games of the 2011-12 season. After initially hinting that he would challenge the penalty, Calhoun backed off.

    As the regular season ended, all was not well for the program. The team’s national ranking steadily dropped in just over a month, from fifth in early January to 21st when the season ended with losses to West Virginia and Notre Dame.

    Seeded ninth in the Big East tournament, UConn limped into New York’s Madison Square Garden. Five days later, the Huskies left New York with their heads held high after wins over DePaul, Georgetown, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Louisville, by all accounts the first team ever to play five games in five days.

    Walker, the tournament’s best player, was again National Player of the Year material. Lamb evolved into a legitimate scoring threat, freshman guard Shabazz Napier was contributing at both ends and freshman forward Roscoe Smith was giving Calhoun important minutes.

    By the time the NCAA Tournament began, UConn’s freshmen had 35 games behind them, and the experience was translating into results. And sophomore Alex Oriakhi, plagued by inconsistency all season, followed a strong Big East tournament with 23 rebounds in victories over Bucknell and Cincinnati in the NCAA Tournament.

    UConn is one win away from meeting Duke or Arizona in the West Regional final with a Final Four berth at stake. No one except Calhoun could have seen this coming five months ago.

    “”To state the obvious, we’re very happy to be here, as I’m sure that 15 other schools in America are; 40 minutes away from a final eight and obviously 80 minutes away from a Final Four is an exciting thing,”” Calhoun said. “”We have had an opportunity to be here on a number of occasions, never take anything for granted, they’re always fun, and it’s what you start out working for at the beginning of a basketball season.””

    To see more of The Hartford Courant, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.courant.com/.

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