UConn proves you can talk your way out of it
HOUSTON – At the University of Connecticut, basketball practice usually begins with a “thought of the day.” Huskies coach Jim Calhoun will gather his team in a circle and read a motivational quote, maybe share an uplifting story.
But nearly four weeks ago, on March 6, Calhoun changed the routine.
Instead of a quotation or inspiring phrase, the Hall of Fame coach surprised his team with a pep talk. He had to. With losses in four of their previous five games, the Huskies’ heads, Calhoun said, were down.
“I’m not going to quit on you,” Calhoun said forcefully, “and I’m not going to let you quit on yourselves.”
Connecticut hasn’t lost since.
Beginning with the Big East tournament and continuing through the Elite Eight, the Huskies won nine games in 19 days en route to their second Final Four berth in three years.
If Calhoun’s squad defeats Kentucky in Saturday’s NCAA semifinal at Reliant Stadium and then goes on to beat either Butler or Virginia Commonwealth in Monday’s title game, Connecticut’s 11-game, season-ending run surely will be remembered as one of most impressive marches in college basketball history.
“I really haven’t sat back and thought about stuff like that yet,” freshman guard Shabazz Napier said. “I do know one thing: No one thought we could do it.”
Indeed, as the regular season came to an end, it was easy to discount the Huskies.
For the most part, though, Connecticut’s Big East campaign unfolded just as most people figured it would. Picked to finish 10th in the league, the Huskies placed ninth with a 9-9 record.
“We felt like we were just an afterthought in the Big East,” Calhoun said.
Calhoun could sense his players were broken before practice that day in early March. Their body language was poor. Enthusiasm was non-existent.
“For the first time all year, I thought we looked down,” Calhoun said. “They had had amazing resilience for the entire ride, all the way through. I said, ‘To heck with this. We’re not going to put our heads down.’”
For the next two hours, Calhoun said his players went through one of their most intense workouts of the season. They were physical and aggressive with one another, vocal and spirited. By the time the practice ended, Calhoun felt good about his team’s chances in the Big East tournament and beyond.
“We went into Madison Square Garden feeling like we had something to prove,” the coach said. “Nine games, we have.”
Led by standout guard Kemba Walker, the Huskies became the first team in history to win five games in five days at the Big East tournament. Less than a week later, they opened March Madness as a No. 3 seed in the West Region.
Six of Connecticut’s nine wins during the streak came against ranked opponents and four were by five points or less. Throw in the travel from New York to Washington D.C to Anaheim to Houston, and it’s easy to see why so many people continue to marvel at Connecticut’s run.
Over and over in Houston, players have been asked about fatigue and having “tired legs.”
“It’s not a factor,” Walker said. “Whenever the games come, we’ll be ready.”
A jaw-dropping streak such as this wouldn’t have been possible without a standout performer, and Walker is now being hailed as the most impressive player the NCAA tournament has seen since 1988, when Danny Manning led the Kansas Jayhawks to the national championship.
Walker has averaged 26.3 points and 5.3 assists during Connecticut’s nine-game winning streak. Even more impressive is that Walker is doing a better job than he was earlier this year of involving his teammates. Once a one-man show, the Huskies are now getting solid contributions from freshmen such as Napier, Jeremy Lamb and Roscoe Smith. Sophomore Alex Oriakhi has been a force in the paint.
“Right now he’s scoring a lot of points,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said of Walker. “If he’s not, he’ll figure out what it takes to help his team stay in the game. He’s having the same kind of effect that Danny had in 1988.”
Whether Walker has enough left in the tank to lead the Huskies to the NCAA title remains to be seen. A championship would be the third for Calhoun, who – no matter what happens this weekend – has already turned in one of the most impressive coaching jobs of his 39-year career.
Still, after nearly four decades on the sidelines, Calhoun has never seen a streak quite like this.
“Unbelievable,” Calhoun said. “Unbelievable.”
And it may not be over yet.