SAN ANTONIO, Texas – By September, the preseason mags had hit the stands and the talk was getting nuts. Connecticut wasn't just the beat team in the country; it was the fastest, meanest, toughest, smartest group anyone had seen in years.
A few people even dared to suggest the Huskies could win every game.
And Jim Calhoun, who never turns down a compliment but never forgets an insult, just leaned back and smiled.
"Good," the Huskies' coach said last fall, truly pleased everyone thought so highly of his club.
But the thing about lofty expectations is that they quickly can become burdens. Each setback becomes Armageddon, each stumble a chance for the critics to howl.
At one point in February, when UConn had fallen from its perch atop the polls, an online columnist called them the season's biggest disappointment and declared Calhoun had done the worst coaching job in the nation.
"We were 21-3," he recalled on Monday with a sarcastic smile. He was exaggerating – the Huskies were 19-3, then lost two straight games. But he made his point.
Calhoun can enjoy (in his own way) that one now since the critics were oh-so wrong. And in the end, everything Connecticut did was oh-so right.
Monday the Huskies captured their second national title by manhandling Georgia Tech, 82-73.
There was no secret why. UConn (33-6) was way better, way deeper, way more talented. Its two preseason All-Americans, Emeka Okafor (24 points, 15 rebounds) and Ben Gordon (21 points), were the stars.
In a sport that built its popularity on upsets, the champion was last fall's chalk pick.
But only because Calhoun and his kids managed to tune out all the pressure and just had fun with the whole thing.
"It is so difficult to have people expect you to win every single game," Calhoun said. "The kids were able to shake it off, have fun and the result is winning a national championship."
Not that Calhoun, who has an elephant's memory, was willing to forgive and forget the doubters.
"I hope they're not disappointed in the fact that we won the national championship."
This season was Calhoun at his very best, a performance that will assure he never again will be passed over for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as he was Monday morning.
The worst coaching job in the nation? Try the best.
First, even after winning a national title in 1999 and dealing with health problems, the 61-year-old recruited like a rookie and amassed an amazing group of talent. Then he embraced the expectations, rode his players hard and when the perfect moment came in midseason to let off the accelerator he did it.
That was in mid-February, after a 13-point victory over Miami, which ended a sky-is-falling two-game losing streak. During the game Calhoun had been "crazed" (his word), grinding his players for every mistake even as the Huskies cruised to the win.
When he walked into the victorious locker room and found a team staring at the floor in dejected silence he flipped the switch and began cracking jokes.
"The teaching was over, the building was [next]," he said. "There was a lot more smiling at UConn."
The Huskies lost just once after that, and in the NCAA tournament, fully healthy, they had their way with most of the field. They got to the Final Four with an average margin of victory of 17.5 points. Then after making a dramatic late-game comeback against Duke in the national semifinals, they controlled the Yellow Jackets at both ends of the court in Monday's championship game.
Tech (28-10) was barely ever in it. The Yellow Jackets shot just 29.4 percent in the first half and trailed at one point by 25 before mounting a spirited comeback.
But this was never in doubt, a competition turned into a coronation.
Some Yellow Jackets blamed the performance on an off shooting night rather than UConn's defense, which, of course, Calhoun took great exception to.
"It wasn't the air conditioning that was blowing those balls down," he cracked.
That's Calhoun, a blue-collar Massachusetts native who never had the benefit of a pedigree or a powerbroker to open career doors.
Everything he has he's earned by working and working and working his way up the ladder. From high school to small college to mid-major to taking over a decidedly ho-hum program in the New England woods and turning it into a two-time champ, a bona fide national powerhouse.
Calhoun is not going to start letting his team's defense get overlooked now. He isn't going to let any deserved praise slip by.
Connecticut is No. 1. The Huskies are the champs.
Just like everyone said they'd be. If only it were as easy as Calhoun and his kids made it look.
- Jim Calhoun