GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP)—Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun met with his players on Wednesday morning.
Under normal circumstances, he would talk about what the top-seeded Huskies have to do to prepare for fifth-seeded Purdue in the NCAA West Regional semifinals.
On this day, he also had to address a Yahoo! Sports report that UConn broke NCAA rules when it recruited former basketball player Nate Miles. Calhoun said he told the players that the university was looking into the allegations and that they shouldn’t worry about them.
“As far as we’re concerned and I’m concerned, we’re here to beat Purdue, and I want you to know that,” Calhoun said he told the players. “That’s basically the kind of the things that we talked to the kids about, then we shut it off.”
In reality, shutting it off might not be so simple.
From UConn’s perspective, the timing couldn’t have been worse. On a clear day in the desert, the report loomed like a stormcloud on the horizon.
It could create a distraction for the Huskies (29-4) as they chase their third national title. But UConn has proved impervious to turmoil this season.
The Huskies overcame the loss of point guard Jerome Dyson, out for the season after undergoing knee surgery. Then they played their NCAA tourney opener without Calhoun, who was hospitalized for dehydration.
UConn was 23-1 when Dyson got hurt on Feb. 11 against Syracuse. The Huskies dropped three of their next seven games as they adjusted to Dyson’s absence— but when the NCAA tournament tipped off, they won their first two games by an average of 41 points.
With Calhoun in the hospital, the Huskies jumped out to a 48-20 halftime lead over 16th-seeded Chattanooga and coasted to a 103-47 victory in the opening round. The 56-point difference was the third-largest margin of victory in NCAA tourney history.
“We are just mentally tough,” senior forward Jeff Adrien said. “It starts with our coach. We don’t let stuff like that bother us or whatever. We have been through a lot of ups and downs in our lives and everything. We just know how to block it off.”
This much is certain: the Huskies couldn’t have asked for a more comfortable place to deal with distractions.
The road to both of their NCAA titles—in 1999 and 2004—went through regionals in Phoenix.
Technically, this regional is in Glendale, to the west of Phoenix, and the games will be played in the Arizona Cardinals’ cavernous University of Phoenix Stadium instead of U.S. Airways Center, home to the NBA’s Phoenix Suns.
But the Huskies still feel right at home.
“I’m glad to be back in the West,” Calhoun said. “There seems to be something about being out here in the warm weather.”
Although the games are in a different venue this time, Calhoun said the Huskies planned to follow the routine they’ve established on past trips to the Valley of the Sun. He said his players seemed undisturbed by the stir created by the Yahoo! report.
“I think the kids right now, they are talking about can we go to the Phoenix Suns game tonight,” he said. “I think they are really looking at other things—where are we going to eat, all of those type of things. I think they are focused on what they have to do tomorrow to get to Saturday.”
The Boilermakers, by contrast, sailed under the media radar on Wednesday. It was as if no one noticed that the Boilermakers (27-9) have made their deepest NCAA tourney foray since 2000, when they reached the regional final—in the West Region, by coincidence.
Coach Matt Painter was asked only five questions at his post-practice news conference—and one was about whether the Yahoo! report about UConn might help his team.
“I don’t think so,” Painter said. “You can see they have a lot of good chemistry, and I wouldn’t think anything would be a distraction to them at all.”
Purdue seemed an unlikely candidate to reach the regional semifinals after dropping three of its last four games in the regular season. But the Boilermakers swept to the Big Ten tourney title in Indianapolis, not far from their campus in West Lafayette, Ind., and they ride into Glendale on a five-game win streak.
While the Huskies were crushing their first two opponents in the NCAA tournament, Purdue slipped past 12th-seeded Northern Iowa 61-56 and fourth-seeded Washington 76-74.
“It has been a long road for us,” guard E’Twaun Moore said. “The end of the season was rocky, so this is a great reward for our team to be here.”
Unlike the Huskies, the Boilermakers aren’t startlingly athletic, and they start only one player over 6-foot-8.
The Boilermakers rely on a balanced attack, with guard E’Twaun Moore averaging 14.0 points, forward JaJuan Johnson 13.4 points and forward Robbie Hummel 12.4 points.
“We may have played—may have, I don’t know this—more talented teams,” Calhoun said. “We will find this out tomorrow. I don’t know if we have played more united teams in a single style of basketball, which is to come at you for 40 minutes both defensively and offensively.”