Fight in these dogs

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The radiation treatments ended back in August, and the ear-to-throat incision made during lymph node surgery has healed.

Seven months after doctors declared Connecticut’s Jim Calhoun cancer-free – seven months after some wondered why he didn’t just retire – the 66-year-old Hall of Famer is back on the sideline, barking orders at his Huskies, the No. 1 team in college basketball.

Only now, Calhoun does it with a smile.

“I love this team,” Calhoun said after a 68-51 victory at No. 5 Louisville on Monday. “I love all my teams, but these guys are special. They’ve fought through a lot to get to where they are today.”

Calhoun grinned when someone noted the obvious parallel.

“Yes,” he said, “I guess you could say I have, too.”

That’s why Calhoun is savoring this season more than ever. He beat prostate cancer in 2003 and skin cancer two years ago. But last summer, when doctors removed 36 lymph nodes they feared were cancerous, Calhoun was a bit more rattled than before.

He lost 24 pounds during his six weeks of radiation treatment, which caused fatigue and the dulling of some of his taste buds. Folks around the Connecticut basketball program thought Calhoun had coached his last game. Calhoun, though, said he never gave it a thought.

“Why would I do that?” he asked reporters. “Why quit doing something you love?”

Especially when you do it so well?

Four other teams held the No. 1 spot in the Associated Press poll before Connecticut catapulted to the top on Monday. Unlike their predecessors, the Huskies – who are 21-1 overall and 10-1 in the Big East – don’t appear ready to relinquish their status anytime soon.

Rip Hamilton led Connecticut to the NCAA title in 1999 before Ben Gordon and Emeka Okafor helped the Huskies accomplish the feat in 2004. Still, the team that could give Calhoun his third title might be his best yet.

Just like Calhoun with cancer, Connecticut’s players don’t flounder in the face of adversity. They flourish.

Monday’s 17-point thrashing of Louisville at Freedom Hall is the perfect example. Played before more than 20,000 crazed Cardinals fans, the game was billed as the top matchup of the college basketball season to date. By halftime it had turned into a laugher, with Connecticut bullying and intimidating Rick Pitino’s squad to the point where it was almost embarrassing.

Connecticut is mean. That’s the Huskies’ defining trait, more than their overwhelming talent, athleticism and skill. They play with an ego and a swagger that gives them an edge before they step on the court.

A few times Monday, when 7-foot-3 center Hasheem Thabeet blocked a shot, he looked down at his opponent and laughed. When Louisville made an easy basket after stealing the ball from guard Jerome Dyson at midcourt, Dyson didn’t get flustered. Instead he took the inbounds pass and snaked his way down the court for a coast-to-coast layup.

As the game wore on it was obvious Louisville was shaken. Forward Earl Clark missed 14 of his 16 shots and refused to go into the paint. As a team, the Cardinals shot just 34.4 percent and went to the foul line only once.

“We want to impose our will,” point guard A.J. Price said. “No matter if it’s our guards or our bigs, we want to let people know that we’re not going to back down from any style of game that you want to play. We’ll play however you want to play because, no matter what, we think we’re going to win.”

Calhoun loves that kind of braggadocio – especially considering what players such as Thabeet and Price have experienced the last few seasons.

Thabeet arrived at Connecticut from Tanzania two years ago having only played basketball since he was 15. Thanks to Calhoun’s tutoring and mentoring, Thabeet is now the top center in the college game and a future lottery pick in the NBA draft.

“His presence is overwhelming,” Calhoun said.

Price is an interesting story, too. A brain hemorrhage forced him to miss what would’ve been his freshman season, and later he was suspended for another season for his involvement in the theft of four laptop computers.

Price dealt with his issues, and last year his work paid dividends when he averaged a team-high 14.9 points.

Connecticut’s tone-setter, though, is senior forward Jeff Adrien, who despite standing just 6-foot-7 is one of the most physically imposing players in college basketball. The well-chiseled Adrien bench presses 315 pounds and is built like a brick house.

Louisville freshman Samardo Samuels found that out the hard way Monday. Samuels caught a pass near the elbow, unleashed a few power dribbles and attempted to back Adrien into the paint. Adrien just flexed and refused to budge. When Samuels was whistled for traveling, Adrien pounded his chest, looked into the stands and screamed.

“I’ve been in this league for four years now, lifting weights and getting strong,” Adrien said. “That freshman should’ve known better than to try to back me down. That’s a no-no.”

Adrien loses his scowl and grins bashfully.

“Off the court,” he said, “we’re all really, really nice. We’re all having fun right now.”

And that includes the coach.

As Calhoun prepared to leave Freedom Hall on Monday, a friend stopped him outside of the postgame interview room to offer his congratulations. After a few moments of small talk, Calhoun began to walk away.

“By the way, Jim,” the friend said, “you look great.”

Calhoun whispered as he nodded.

“I feel great,” he said. “I feel great.

Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Feb 3, 2009