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Price-led UConn focused on road to title

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PHILADELPHIA – If there are lessons to be learned from having a father who once played in a Final Four, A.J. Price isn't of a mind to apply them – or even acknowledge their existence.

His father, Tony, was part of one of the NCAA tournament's most surprising runs. He was the star of the 1979 Penn Quakers – a team that came out of nowhere to reach the national semifinals before Magic Johnson and Michigan State destroyed them in Salt Lake City. But Price regards his father's experience with enough savvy and arrogance to ask himself a smart question: What can a team that wasn't expected to reach the Final Four teach me?

The Connecticut Huskies, Price's team, aren't some long shot like Penn was 30 years ago. Even without injured junior guard Jerome Dyson for the entirety of the tournament and without stomach-sick coach Jim Calhoun for its first-round game against Chattanooga, UConn has the hungry look of a team bent on crushing all comers.

Its 92-66 thrashing of Texas A&M on Saturday at the Wachovia Center followed its 56-point humiliation of Chattanooga on Thursday, and Price rightly wouldn't consent to connect his father's past push to the Final Four to his potential one this year.

"We don't talk about it much," Price said Saturday as he sat in UConn's locker room. "I don't think you can really relate the two situations. It's totally different. They were a Cinderella team, a Cinderella story. We're expected to be there. We're kind of a powerhouse, and it wouldn't be shocking if we made it."

No, it wouldn't, not the way Price is playing. After scoring 20 points in 27 minutes against Chattanooga, he torched Texas A&M for 27 points and eight assists. Though Calhoun said that Price has been tentative most of this season after tearing his left anterior cruciate ligament last year in UConn's first-round loss to San Diego, it's hard to see a hint of hesitation in him now.

"People questioned me, 'Do you still think he has his quickness?' " Calhoun said. "The best way [to answer] right now is probably, 'Ask Texas A&M.' … What he needs to draw from is some of the things that have happened to him. He's had enough for three guys."

Yes, some hard things have happened to A.J. Price – the knee injury; a congenital condition called arteriovenous malformation that caused bleeding on his brain, forced him to miss his freshman season and threatened his life.

On a lesser scale, there was the sight of George Mason's celebration in 2006 after the Patriots upset the Huskies to reach the Final Four. Truth be told, though, the best and worst of the Connecticut program come together in him, in a senior point guard who – with his performance in this tournament – might be playing his way into the first round of the NBA draft.

"Those are the kinds of things that hurt teams at this time of the year, thinking about where they're going to go in the draft," Price said. "If I keep playing, and we keep winning – doing the things we're doing now – that'll take care of itself. Coach has made it a point to tell us that's what he thinks hurt the '06 team. That should have been a Final Four team, but a lot of other distractions hurt that team."

Distractions. That's a kind euphemism from Price for what happened in the '05-06 season, because he was one of those distractions. The university suspended him that season for his role in the theft and re-sale of laptop computers by several UConn players, giving Price the longest and loneliest of looks at the last Huskies team that had the talent to win a national championship.

Price not only had to rebuild his reputation after the laptop scandal, he had to be one of the foundation pieces in the reconstruction of Calhoun's program. The Huskies went 17-14 in '06-07, Price's first full season on the court for them.

"Seventeen wins a couple years ago," Calhoun said. "At Connecticut, that's not a great thing to be sometimes – not any time, as a matter of fact."

There was Price's ruptured ACL and the aborted promise of last March. Then there was Dyson's torn lateral meniscus – UConn was 23-1 at the time – and that six-overtime loss to Syracuse in the Big East tournament that seemed only to confirm the conventional wisdom that, without Dyson, this UConn team wasn't capable of winning a national title.

"This particular team, because they kind of hold onto each other, they've kind of been told, 'You aren't like some of the other teams,' " Calhoun said. "But they are. They're really good. When you win 29 basketball games and lose four, and you had one of your best players go down seven or eight games before then, they're good. We're really good."

On the day that they found out Dyson wouldn't be back in the lineup this season, UConn's seniors called a post-practice team meeting. Jeff Adrien and Price were the loudest voices, according to guard Craig Austrie, calling on their teammates not to "fall apart."

More than a month has passed since that meeting, and here come the Connecticut Huskies to Scottsdale, Ariz., and the Sweet 16. They are the No. 1 seed in the West Region, the most dominant team of the tournament thus far, their point guard perhaps the bracket's best player.

"This is a veteran group that's been together for a couple of years now," Price said. "After the loss of Jerome or the loss of Coach, we came in knowing we had to stay focused, stay mentally tough, and understand the task at hand."

The task is as simple and direct as it gets for a program that has won two national championships over the last decade: win a third.

It's a burden, A.J. Price will tell you, that even a father with a Final Four berth under his belt would struggle to understand.

– Mike Sielski is the sports columnist for Calkins Media, a chain of daily newspapers in suburban Philadelphia.