NEW YORK – At one point during overtime Wednesday, Jim Calhoun and his 69-year-old back, the one that was surgically repaired all of 10 days ago, sprung off Connecticut's bench and charged onto the Madison Square Garden court so he could properly scream at another mistaken referee.
The Huskies' Big East tournament game against West Virginia, and perhaps even their season, was hanging in the balance. So screw the back. Screw the coaches' box. He got all the way inside the 3-point arc and lighted the ref up. If this was going to be the Last Stand of Jim Calhoun, he was going down like all the previous ones: swinging.
"One thing I know about him – he wants to win so bad that you'd think he's out there playing with the energy he gives," power forward Alex Oriakhi said after the Huskies pulled out the 71-67 victory, its second in as many days, to set up a Thursday game with Syracuse. "That's who he is and he's never going to change. When things get tough, he never runs away from it."
The Big East tournament began with everyone wondering when Calhoun might finally call it quits – his team was on the bubble, he keeps getting sick, there's a looming potential postseason ban next season and continued NCAA probation after that. Some of the Huskies' best players are expected to turn pro or perhaps transfer.
This doesn't look all that fun. This would be a grind for a young man.
"Various things" is how Calhoun describes the chaos that swirls around him, as pleasant a term as could be invented.
Sometime during his self-made, Hall-of-Fame career, Calhoun stopped worrying about trying to control what everyone thinks of "various things." Or, at least, he worries less. Maybe it was the health scares. Maybe it was experience. Maybe it was the NCAA run-ins. Maybe it was the time he busted his ribs on a charity bike ride and finished anyway.
At one point a year ago, during UConn's magical, out-of-nowhere run to his third NCAA title, he compared a coaching career to a car: If you drive enough miles, you get some dings and dents.
This team has damn near been totaled at times. It's now 20-12, and the losses were numerous and, at times, dreadful. Freshman guard Ryan Boatright was held out of games by the NCAA on two separate occasions. Calhoun missed a month of the season because of health issues. There have been 10 different starting lineups. There was debate and an appeal over the possible 2013 tourney ban.
"Ups and downs," Calhoun said. "No coach, no 'Boat.' "
This also is a team with two lottery picks (Andre Drummond and Jeremy Lamb) and three or four others who should play in the NBA in some role for at least some time.
"We have the talent," Oriakhi said. "We just have to start using it."
Maybe they have. This was UConn's 13th consecutive postseason win. A year ago, the Huskies entered the Big East tournament as the ninth seed, won five times, clipped the nets, went to the NCAAs, won six times, clipped the nets.
This season, they entered the Big East tournament as the ninth seed, have won twice and …
"I don't think it can happen again," Calhoun said. "But then again, I said it could never happen in the first place. We would like to give it a shot."
Oriakhi: "I'm not saying we're going to win it all. [But] I know anything's possible."
Put it this way, whether UConn wins Calhoun's eighth Big East tournament title or loses Thursday to the Orange, someone is going to have a panic attack when the Huskies show up in their bracket Sunday.
Calhoun brought his team here just as spring has sprung – air warming, sun shining, college hoops overtaking Midtown Manhattan. March in Manhattan always has been a source of strength for him. It's always felt like home.
So, Calhoun gathered his club earlier this week.
"I said, 'Look around, new season. The old one is done.' "
Calhoun may be the most relentless competitor in college basketball. He began as a suburban high school coach in Massachusetts, a small college player with no pedigree and no mentor to pave the road. He eventually clawed his way to Northeastern, then Connecticut. At the time, UConn was the dregs of the Big East, a little rural campus far from talent and the cool cities of everyone else.
Now the place is the definition of big-time college basketball. The good. The bad. The stark reality. No one knows what can be sustained when he leaves. No one knows what kind of shape the place will be in. A full postseason ban for low Academic Progress Rates – that would include missing the Big East tournament – would be humbling. UConn already is down some scholarships because of previous APR penalties and NCAA sanctions for major recruiting violations.
Next year is next year, though. Why worry? Right now, there are games to be won. There's a tournament to capture, a season to save. There's a coach, fresh off another surgery, fresh off another medical leave, trying to rally a team with so much potential.
"One of the reasons I think we do well in tournaments is because we play with a little different attitude," Calhoun said. "We don't have anything to lose."
Here comes Jim Calhoun, going after that ref. Forget that back surgery. Here comes UConn, going after the improbable. Forget those "various things."
"Is it magical?" Calhoun asked. "No, it's just us."
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- Jim Calhoun