April 6, 2011
Sure, it was a rock fight. Yet to focus on the rock is to miss the fact that the UConn Huskies moved a mountain over 28 glorious days.
Sure, the game was ugly to the eye. Yet defense is beautiful to the soul to a man who Tuesday sounded like he has no intention of walking away.
When sports writers gather for the big events, the Final Four, Olympics, Super Bowl, etc., they have an uproarious tendency to stop being Red Smith and start being Rex Reed. They turn into French figure skating judges. Instead of a guy with a ball, they see a painter with a canvas or an actress with a dramatic role.
Sweat becomes perspiration. Athletics become aesthetics. So when UConn shot 29 percent in the first half and Butler shot 18.8 percent for both halves Monday night in UConn's 53-41 national championship victory, I got to be honest. I couldn't wait to get up Tuesday to turn on the computer and buy papers at the airport.
Pat Forde of ESPN.com called the game "a bomb of historic proportions … a game that was so train-wreck terrible to watch it set the sport back to the hook-shot days. Actually, that's an insult to the hook-shot days."
Can you see George Mikan with those Coke bottle glasses?
Mike Freeman from CBSSports.com went historical: "Not since China built a great wall has the world witnessed such high level masonry. No, Rome wasn't built in a day, but it could have been had the Bulldogs and Huskies played a game then."
Writing in USA Today, Mike Lopresti did one better. He went Joanie Weston: "What if a national championship game was scheduled and a roller derby broke out?"
"Did you see this aesthetically unappealing mess on the court? Mike Wise asked in the Washington Post.
A CBS analyst had. "This is the worst half of basketball I've ever seen in a national championship game," Greg Anthony said at halftime.
Gregg Doyel of CBSSports.com seemed to play a little reverse psychology: "UConn and Butler play the most dreadful championship game in the history of championship games — in any sport — and we relish in it."
Actually fewer of us did. With Butler falling apart in the second half, TV ratings were down 18 percent from last year's Duke-Butler final.
Believe this much. If Butler had held UConn to 18.8 percent shooting, Brad Stevens would be heralded today as the new secretary of defense for Commander-In-Bracketologist Obama. Bill Belichick would be calling to invite him to a Bon Jovi concert.
Yes, one man's ugly is another state's beauty. The country saw a pile of rocks? Connecticut sees Calhoun on the Mount Rushmore of coaches, up there with Knight, Coach K, Rupp and Wooden. The country wanted to cry it was so bad? Upon the team's return, Kemba Walker broke down in tears at the Gampel Pavilion rally when, out of nowhere, he was added to the Huskies of Honor.
There's no disputing that many television sets outside Connecticut and Indiana were clicked off at halftime. But believe this, too. You could have stuffed all the folks — outside of Connecticut and outside of alumni — pulling for the Huskies in the backseat of a Volkswagen Beetle. If that had been Walker and Jeremy Lamb missing and Butler winning for every little Hickory, television numbers wouldn't have been 18 percent down because of 18.8 percent shooting.
"From a purist's standpoint you want to teach defense," Calhoun said. "Take a clip of both teams. You'd see some terrific defense. If you like it wide open, want a 49-42 football game, this wasn't your game. But Butler gave it everything they had. [Matt] Howard gave everything he had. Both teams were matching that.
Lamb, all arms and legs, did a splendid job defending Shelvin Mack. Calhoun used a bunch of players, big and not-so-big to dog Howard, who missed 12 of 13 shots. Andrew Smith butchered layups. The combined first half score was the lowest since 1946. UConn's winning total the lowest since 1949. Butler's 18.8 percent was the lowest ever, breaking a 70-year-old mark.
"To me that's beauty," Calhoun said. "That's what this game should be about. Yeah, you'd like a few more baskets. But it was two teams that weren't going to give into each other and finally our superiority took over. Our quickness and length got to them. But, damn, I loved it in the sense of the fight."
Maybe in the wonderment of Kemba folks forgot defense long has been UConn basketball calling card. Defense is will and no one imposes it better than Calhoun. When it mattered most Saturday night, Kentucky scored only once in its last 10 possessions.
Maybe Louisville Rick Pitino forgot about it, too, when he picked Butler to win by 7-8 points. He insisted UConn was a tired team. Calhoun beat Calipari. He showed Pitino. He beat those who believed NCAA violations would bury his program. If revenge is a dish best served cold, Calhoun's head is probably in the refrigerator of his Pomfret home right now.
"I have no bitterness toward anybody," Calhoun insisted.
He does have plenty of fight. That's why it came as no surprise when he told ESPN Chicago on Tuesday, "I fully plan on coaching basketball next year." Calhoun grew a little less emphatic, but that's the message expected officially in the coming weeks. For me, it has been fairly ridiculous that some in the media are pushing him to walk away. If Calhoun wants to retire, play golf, hang with the grandkids, it is his business. But the guy looks and acts younger now than he did two years ago. This team that brought joy to the state put the basketball joy back into a 68-year-old man, too.
"I needed this team," Calhoun said.
I've always pictured Calhoun, as Tom Moore and other assistants used to joke, being carried out kicking and screaming like Jimmy Cagney in "Angels with Dirty Faces." Or maybe with three national titles elevating his status, he could be carried out of Gampel Pavilion like a Spartan on his shield. My guess is he'll coach to the gauge hits E, until he's spent, when the bell clangs to end the 15th round
To focus on the lack of aesthetics of one game is to miss the compelling 28-day run to glory. To focus on the rock fight is miss the mountain the Huskies moved. Eleven times they faced elimination. Eleven times they fought on until ultimately there were no more fights left.
A 53-41 rock fight to win the national title? To Calhoun, it's a Picasso.
Besides, if everybody wanted more points, they should have let Nate Miles play.
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