UConn takes its embattled coach on "sweet ride" to NCAA title
Connecticut Huskies head coach Jim Calhoun celebrates with the net after defeating the Butler Bulldogs in their men's final NCAA Final Four Championship college basketball game in Houston (LUCY NICHOLSON, REUTERS / April 5, 2011)
His players were his refuge, and Monday night they provided the ultimate comfort: the Huskies' third national championship.
"I've been fortunate enough to have some great teams at UConn," he said after the Huskies' 53-41 title-game conquest of Butler. "Very honestly, this group to me will always be incredibly special. They're all special in their own way. But I needed this team. Very rarely does a coach say that.
"But I needed this team every day for 109 practice sessions, for their walk-ons. For everybody involved, they truly were brothers, they truly were trusting of each other and very, very special."
UConn's season was as flawed as its coach. The Huskies (32-9) lost more games than any national champion since Kansas' 11 in 1988. They dropped four of five to close the regular season and finished ninth in the thorny Big East Conference.
But no team in college basketball history has even been better in a tournament format.
The Huskies in November captured the prestigious Maui Invitational, defeating Wichita State, Michigan State and Kentucky, postseason outfits all. At the Big East tournament, UConn won an unprecedented, five-games-in-five days, the last four against ranked opponents, to earn the conference championship.
Many wondered whether the gauntlet drained the Huskies. Instead, it empowered them.
UConn advanced through the NCAA tournament thanks to Kemba Walker's irrepressible offense and a suffocating man-to-man defense.
None of the Huskies' six NCAA opponents shot better than 42.5 percent, and Butler rattled by UConn's size and the big stage, shot 18.6 percent, the worst in title-game history.
How good was UConn's defense? Well, the Huskies blocked 10 Butler shots, most in an NCAA final, four each by Alex Oriakhi and Roscoe Smith.
Most staggering, that defense allowed UConn to survive the worst 3-point shooting in Final Four history. The Huskies made 2-of-23 attempts from beyond the arc at the Final Four, 1-of-12 versus Kentucky and 1-of-11 against Butler.
Yet they won the national championship!
UConn's 1-for-11 matched Duke in 1990 for the lowest in a title game. Those Blue Devils lost to UNLV by 30 points.
"We thought the way to disguise our youth was get better at defense every day," said Calhoun, who started three freshmen and a sophomore Monday. "Down the stretch, we would take literally 50 percent of practice on nothing but defense. That's much more than almost any other team I've done."
The Huskies ended last year with an NIT loss at Virginia Tech and began this season unranked. Moreover, no one envisioned Walker becoming the nation's best player, a 6-foot-1 junior who craved, and made, countless big shots.
Monday morning he received the Bob Cousy Award as college basketball's top point guard. Monday evening he was named the Final Four's most outstanding player.
"From last season, the loss to Virginia Tech, Coach, he gave me the keys," Walker said. "From that point on, I just drove."
Calhoun drives himself and his players like few others. But this year wore on him, particularly in February, when the NCAA cut his program's scholarships and suspended him for three Big East games next season.
So college basketball was left with an unseemly ceremony in which a sanctioned coach accepted the championship trophy from a tournament chairman, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, who oversees a sanctioned football program.
"The only thing that was hurtful about the NCAA wasn't the situation," Calhoun said. "I took full responsibility for secondary offenses that took place in my program. There were some people that felt it was a great time to take cheap shots. That was the only hurtful part. People I like. People I don't know."
Calhoun is a curious case, defiant, charming and witty. He's a rogue, but he John Wooden, Adolph Rupp, Mike Krzyzewski and Bob Knight are the only coaches with at least three national championships.
"I think we helped him overcome everything," Walker said. "I think we made his year."
"The gift of trust, the gift of faith they had in me," Calhoun said, "their inability to ever give in. That's what I got into 40-some years ago when I became a high school teacher/coach. I couldn't ask for a better gift.
"Sometimes you kind of need that. When a team gives you that, this is as sweet a ride as I've ever been on my life clearly."
Any thoughts of retirement?
"Simply it's going to be what I feel passionately, can I give the kids everything humanly possible that I can?" Calhoun said. "If I can, I'll coach as long as I can keep on doing it. If I decide that I don't, then I'll move on to something because I do have an incredible life with my family and friends and other things that I do."
David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime, and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP