They're Riding High Out Of The West Again

Jeff Jacobs
Contact ReporterThe Hartford Courant

ANAHEIM, Calif. — The three-pointer by Derrick Williams that would have ended this jubilant, most improbable UConn season bounced off the rim. Kyle Fogg kept the rebound alive and the three-pointer by Jamelle Horne that would have ended this jubilant, most unusual nine-game run bounced off the rim again.

Houston, we have another Final Four.

Yet not just another NCAA Final Four, this story is unique in Connecticut basketball history.

The great sports franchises, the storied schools, it has been said, win championships when they aren't the chalk, aren't the stone-cold favorite. In horse racing, they call it "back class" and UConn, with Jim Calhoun, has more than two decades of back class.

Yes, doubt did flash through Kemba Walker's mind Saturday night at Honda Center. When Horne's shot went up, Walker did say, "Game Time!" He thought the jubilant, improbable season was gone. Fate would have other ideas. This 65-63 victory over Arizona would give further validation to Calhoun's claim this is the most resilient team he has ever coached in four decades.

"Nine games — nine wins — in 19 days, I've never experienced anything like it," Calhoun said.

Surely, the path to glory of this team, Kemba's team, would arrive after a couple of inspired practices following a regular season-ending loss to Notre Dame. They would lead to five wins in five New York nights and an uplifting Big East title that paved the way to the fourth Final Four of Calhoun's career. Yet there also is something deeper at work here, something deeper than what some may see as a miracle season, and to ignore it is to ignore the power of UConn basketball.

"Over 25 years we have built something deep and rich at Connecticut," Calhoun said. "And to have people dismiss us over a couple of months [last year] I took that personally. I wanted to do everything humanly possible to show that perception was wrong."

Yes, this story is about the glory of a program as much as it is about the regenerative, exhilarating powers of a young team. To sell either short is to miss the best story of all. And for UConn, the path to that glory always has gone through the West, through places thousands of miles away from a campus tucked away in the rural hills of eastern Connecticut.

It went that way in 1999 in Phoenix when Calhoun, with a reputation for winning big games, but not the biggest ones, got to his first Final Four with a victory over Gonzaga and would dissolve into tears.

A picture of former team manager Joe McGinn had been hung in each locker stall at America West Arena. And afterward, feeling a thousand different emotions, Calhoun started to tell Richard Hamilton and Khalid El-Amin and the rest how proud he was and all he could get out was, "Great job guys …" The team descended on their coach.

"I told him I wanted him to go to the Hall of Fame the right way,'' El-Amin said that day. "`Not as the best coach not to ever get to the Final Four, but one of the best coaches ever in NCAA history.''

A week later, UConn would beat Duke, El-Amin would shout to the cameras, "We shocked the world!" and Calhoun would write a book, "Dare To Dream." The path continued in 2004, again in Phoenix, and this one had nothing to do with dreaming. The Huskies had Emeka Okafor, who was in the crowd Saturday, and Ben Gordon and they would have shocked the world if they had lost to Alabama. Theirs would be a victory of relief, of great expectations met with a second national title the next week in San Antonio.

"We're a better team than Alabama," Calhoun had said that day in Phoenix. "I would have felt awful had we lost. I would have felt personally responsible.''

The path continued in 2009, again in Arizona, this time at University of Phoenix Stadium. There was a picture of another former team manager, too, only this one was in newspapers across the nation. It was a picture of Josh Nochimson and the story was an ugly one. UConn stood accused of NCAA violations. Calhoun was not relieved when his team beat Missouri in the Elite Eight, no burden was lifted. He was angry and he was defiant.

The anger would subside, but not the defiance. Let the record show: UConn had a bad 2009-2010 season. UConn did not pack up the basketballs for good.

"We got to the Final Four in '09 and it was forgotten in about a week," Calhoun said. "I know there were a lot of distractions, a lot of news. But it was, 'Connecticut is on its way down' … whoa, whoa, this our fifth trip to the Elite Eight in a decade. We've been around. We've had great players. We haven't gone anyplace. I don't think I became rejuvenated. I think I was determined that this group was going to make noise.

"And it happened because the gospel I was giving was to guys who wanted to listen to that gospel. I felt hurt last year. We weren't one of 68 in Sports Illustrated picked to make the tournament after all we did? Our recruiting class was 25? I didn't believe it and I let the kids know all this. That was my theme: 'We'll show them.'"

And, man, did they in the most thrilling ways possible.

The wisdom was that if Kemba could lead this group into the NCAA Tournament it would be a nice season. Then they won in Maui in late November and everybody laughed about the Big East coaches picking the Huskies for 10th. Well, they finished in a tie for ninth, finished with that loss to Notre Dame. That was nine games ago, nine giddy, pulse-stopping, dumfounding games ago.

And, yes, the path led the Huskies through the West again. Yes, Kemba is the best player in the nation. Yes, Jeremy Lamb is a freshman story like few others. And, yes, it feels glorious for UConn fans to bask in an unexpected Final Four. But to sell the program short, man, that was a mistake. To believe the program was dead was stupid. That is to undersell a Hall of Fame coach, maybe the most competitive man on the planet.

Remarkable March? Absolutely. Impossible season? Of course not.

"If I said to you at the start this is definitely a Final Four team, you say, 'Whoa, hold it down a little bit,'" Calhoun said. "Andre LaFleur [a lead recruiter] and I got together at the end of last season. I told him the only way I wanted to continue to coach is if I got a good group of kids. I want a group that will listen to everything we have to say."

And so they did. They believed the gospel. And, yes, gospels do have a miracle or two, like against Texas, like against Pittsburgh and Syracuse and Louisville and, yes, this night. In November, this group showed us in Hawaii how good it could be. In March, this crazy March, this group showed us how good it is. The path through the West was always there and this time it leads to Houston.

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