You know how this complicated and uplifting journey ended.
UConn won the 2011 national championship. Players embraced under falling confetti at Reliant Stadium in Houston. Kemba Walker became one of the most celebrated athletes on the planet. Having presided over a 41-game marathon in his 39th season, Jim Calhoun was left with the unbridled joy of a little kid. A fan base was rejuvenated. A parade was planned.
Some will call this among the most improbable national championship runs in history. Others will call the Huskies' 53-41 victory over Butler the most aesthetically challenged championship game in history. Those ancillary details, those sour opinions, might matter in 49 states.
Calhoun acknowledged on a number of occasions that there are no truly great college teams in this age of early defections to the NBA. But his is the best. Again. The Huskies, a team that took Connecticut on an up-and-down thrill ride for more than four months, culminated their careful and carefree navigation of the national landscape with an 11-game winning streak that left a program from the rolling hills of Storrs atop the NCAA mountain for the third time.
"This group has taken me on one of the great, special journeys," Calhoun said. "Better than I could possibly imagine."
Then again, didn't Calhoun always seem to know a little more than the rest of us? The man who admits he can't say hello in less than 500 words certainly kept a running, sometimes rambling, dialogue from October to April. But there was a quiet confidence, too. There was no panic when the team lost seven of 11 to close the regular season. And along the way, there were concise, telling exhibitions of faith.
"I really like my team," Calhoun said many times before practice started in October. It ended up as one of the best in the program's storied history.
Noting the Huskies' inexperience and comparing UConn to the 2006-07 team that struggled mightily and finished 17-14, Calhoun said, "I know one thing. That team didn't have anyone nearly as good as Kemba Walker."
Walker ended up putting together the best season in UConn history.
At Big East media day in October, Calhoun said, "If I say, 'Jeremy Lamb,' you'll say, 'I've never heard of him.' You will. Oh, you will."
Lamb fought through early struggles and emerged as one of the best freshmen in the nation, and as one of the most dependable scorers during the Big East tournament and the march to the Final Four.
There's a told-you-so aspect to all of this. The Huskies finished 18-16 last season, waved goodbye to three key seniors and began a project that would require so much of so many. There were a wide range of colorful personalities that meshed like tight-fitting pieces to a jigsaw puzzle. Brothers, players called themselves for months. Champions, they called themselves at the end. They believed, before and after anyone else did.
From the time Walker and Donnell Beverly, the two captains, began calling incoming freshmen over the summer, urging all to arrive to campus early, a tone was set. Walker stood atop a wall before the annual Husky Run in October, a few days before practice began, and simply said, "Let's get it started. Let's have some fun." And they did, smiling even through the lack of expectations they viewed as a lack of respect.
Underdogs. That's what the Huskies were. That's what they made themselves. Calhoun entered the season amid an NCAA investigation of his program, questions about the quality of recruits he brought in, questions about his health, questions about his future. Calhoun explained in October that he was better coming out of a corner than he was on a pedestal, so watch out. We should have known something was brewing, that the preseason confidence he exhibited was more than coach-speak.
The Huskies took care of business with two early home victories in November, with Walker scoring a career-high 42 points against Vermont, and then traveled 5,000 miles to Hawaii for the Maui Invitational. UConn was, of course, an underdog. And Calhoun wanted to be sure of that.
Bringing his signature sarcasm, Calhoun sat down for an ocean-side press conference and tossed pressure up into the Hawaiian breeze, planting it squarely on the coaches he would face.
After Wichita State's Gregg Marshall spoke of his team's experience and versatility, Calhoun said, "Gregg just said he has a bevy of everything. I have a bevy of nothing." Calhoun then said Michigan State's Tom Izzo had the best team he had seen in maybe 20 years and that the Spartans should win the Maui title going away. Calhoun moved on to John Calipari, saying Kentucky had "more talent than the Celtics."
Calhoun smiled devilishly. Izzo shook his head and days later called Calhoun a sandbagger.
Inside tiny Lahaina Civic Center, the Huskies played with a hellish fury, erasing a nine-point deficit to defeat Wichita State in the first round. If the nation's eyes weren't opened to Walker's brilliance before this game, they were now. He sat out most of the first half with two fouls and returned in the second to score 29 of his 31 points in an 83-79 victory.
The next day, with Walker pouring in 30 points and again making the go-ahead shot, the Huskies defeated then-No. 2 Michigan State, 70-67. The Huskies throttled No.8 Kentucky in the championship game, 84-67. Walker scored 29 and was named the tournament MVP. The Huskies spent Thanksgiving in Hawaii, feasting and dancing, and returned home with their world turned upside down.
Walker was a legitimate star, the talk of the nation. The Huskies went from unranked to No. 7. They won another five games against overmatched nonconference opponents, but Calhoun kept warning that life was about to change.
Two days after Christmas, the Huskies were no match at Pittsburgh in the Big East opener, losing, 78-63. They barely got by South Florida in overtime, then lost at Notre Dame.
Then came a nonconference game at Texas, a defining afternoon for the team and for Walker, who had become the focal point of every defense, facing double and triple teams. Walker's efficiency dropped as UConn was labeled a one-man show. Less than two weeks after making 10 of 27 shots against Pittsburgh, he made just 8 of 27 against the Longhorns — but the last one, a step-back pull-up jumper while defended by a helpless Dogus Balbay, was the overtime game-winner.
Nine days later, Walker beat Villanova just before the buzzer, and two days after that the Huskies defeated Tennessee to finish the nonconference schedule 12-0. Calhoun stopped short of saying he was surprised at what his team was accomplishing, but the Huskies had clearly allowed their coach to slow down a bit, appreciate the view, to alter just slightly his normal blinding speed approach.
But familiar Big East schools were watching film all along. A six-game winning streak came to an end with a double-overtime loss to Louisville, a game the Huskies could have sealed several times. A home loss to Syracuse followed. The Huskies erased a late deficit to win at Seton Hall but were blown out at St. John's. Why can't UConn run its offense against a matchup zone? The Huskies will be lucky to win one game in the Big East tournament and another in the NCAA Tournament, right?
Lamb had yet to emerge. Alex Oriakhi was inconsistent as the heart of an otherwise thin frontcourt. UConn, it seemed, could be figured out, stopped — and the Huskies often were. Walker went through a midseason shooting funk, didn't get much help from players like Lamb, who even briefly fell out of the rotation.
Seems implausible now, doesn't it?
On two occasions, Calhoun refused to discuss Walker's play after losses. The Huskies were up and down, exposed. They had enough victories to know they had to just stay afloat to make the NCAA Tournament, but aspirations were higher. They were fading in the Big East, unable to sustain, winning three of four only to lose handily at Louisville. NCAA sanctions were handed down. Calhoun missed a game against Marquette to mourn the death of his sister-in-law, and the Huskies blew that one, losing in overtime.
"We're fine," Walker said. He had only said that 100 times before and would say it 100 times again.
UConn would lose seven of 11 down the stretch, four of its last five. The Huskies were picked to finish 10th in the Big East and ended up finishing in a three-way tie for ninth, unable to secure even a first-round bye for the conference tournament.
That was probably the best thing to happen.
When UConn gathered for practice the day after closing the regular season with a home loss to Notre Dame, Calhoun spoke to the players about starting a new season with a new mind-set. The Huskies had won 21 games, still surpassing expectations, and now when no one expected anything, they should expect everything.
The Huskies generated some positive energy with a blowout victory over DePaul to open the Big East tournament in New York. The next day, they easily defeated Georgetown, which was missing one of its best players, Chris Wright.
Then came another shot at Pittsburgh — and one of the more magical moments in UConn's illustrious Big East tournament history. The regular season champion Panthers were too much for the Huskies in ways of size and experience in the first meeting. But UConn erased an early 12-point deficit and came down the stretch going blow for blow with Pittsburgh, a team it had faced in three consecutive tournament finals in 2002-04. This only felt like one.
On the final possession, Walker found himself alone with 6-foot-11 center Gary McGhee. The score was tied. He famously jumped back for a game-winning jump shot as time expired. The Huskies celebrated at midcourt after a shot that will be replayed for years to come. Calhoun jumped and raised his arms. The Huskies were now the national feel-good story.
In a semifinal victory over Syracuse, Walker dished to Lamb for two key baskets in overtime. The next night, in the championship game against Louisville, Walker drew the attention of the entire Cardinals defense, knifed into a small gap in the lane and again dished to Lamb, this time for a layup that delivered the Huskies' seventh conference tournament title, tying Georgetown's record.
UConn was the first team in the history of college basketball to play five games in five days, winning them all. The hype surrounding Walker was even heightened because he was starring in his hometown. The Huskies had made history. Their transcendent star was doing unimaginable things, carrying the team long enough and finally receiving the needed help, shaking hands with former President Bill Clinton, sending his mother, Andrea, into euphoric celebrations in the stands at Madison Square Garden.
It was time to start yet another season. The Huskies were awarded the No. 3 seed in the West Regional of the NCAA Tournament. The new goal? Play six more games. Win them all. The Huskies knew nothing but winning at this point.
Husky Run, Part II
UConn breezed by Bucknell in the opener and was too much for Cincinnati in the second round, cruising through Washington and onto Anaheim.
San Diego State had overwhelming fan support, but UConn had Walker, who had 36 points, and Lamb, who had 24. Arizona had Derrick Williams, plagued by fouls in the first half but ferocious in the second. But UConn took charge, again behind Walker and Lamb. The state of Connecticut held its breath as Williams and Jamelle Horne missed three-pointers that could have ended it all in the closing seconds, and UConn dashed on the court in celebration, having reached the Final Four for the fourth time with a 65-63 victory.
Calhoun called it "a thrill beyond compare."
Associate head coach George Blaney said of Calhoun, his longtime friend, "I've never seen such joy."
Calhoun, 68, entered the Final Four in Houston joking about "My three sons," and then, "My three sons and my problem child." Fresh-faced coaches Brad Stevens of Butler and Shaka Smart of VCU squared off in one national semifinal before Calhoun and problem child Calipari, their old rivalry a little less bitter for its separation by time and miles, squared off in the other.
Walker was hounded, but it didn't matter. The Huskies took hold of the game down the stretch, and again watched a three-pointer that could have ended this remarkable run sail through the air. It came out of the hands of DeAndre Liggins with about 5 seconds left, bounced off the rim and into the hands of Shabazz Napier with 2 seconds left. Napier made two free throws to seal the victory, shades of Khalid El-Amin's free throws in the closing seconds of the 1999 national championship game against Duke.
History called. Butler, last year's runner-up, waited. The national championship game tipped off at 9:23 p.m. on Monday, April 4, 2011. Playing in front of a crowd of more than 70,000 for the second game in a row, UConn trailed by three at halftime but went on a 20-3 run in the second half. Oriakhi was dominant. There was no answer for Walker and Lamb. The Huskies won easily, holding Butler to atrocious 18.8 percent shooting and winning for the second time in as many games despite posting a season-low point total.
This ugly game was so beautiful. Players hugged. The championship trophy was passed around and hats were passed out. UConn had its third title in 13 years. Calhoun became the oldest coach to win a national championship. Walker was the most outstanding player. The next day, after this magic carpet ride ended with a flight home to Connecticut, there was a reception at the airport, a pep rally at Gampel Pavilion.
And then the Huskies were gone. That's the only sad part. The team Calhoun would coach forever if he could finally stepped off the big stage. Calhoun appears to be coming back, but Walker likely is headed to the NBA. The accomplishments, a never-ending ride of answers and athletic theater, are now part of a storied history. The team is a testament to belief and brotherhood, one that transcended doubt and suspended disbelief.
"I've been fortunate enough to have some great teams at UConn," Calhoun said. "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."Copyright © 2015, CT Now