Championship Follow Column

UConn's George Blaney Not Just Along For The Ride

George Blaney

Associate head coach George Blaney tried his best to guide UConn to victory in Jim Calhoun's absence, but in the end, the Huskies lost to Marquette in 74-67 in overtime at the XL Center Thursday night. (STEPHEN DUNN, Hartford Courant / February 24, 2011)

Blaney will sit there silently and nod.

More often than not, they both see the same thing. They know what the other is thinking. The difference is in the reaction. What makes a head coach a piercing needle can make the assistant a pin cushion.

"The biggest thing and the only thing I saw that was a change this year in Jim is that he really, really enjoyed this team," Blaney said. "I think it was a direct result of Kemba and Donnell Beverly taking a hold of the team like no one else since Caron Butler. It was a joyful team to coach."

Individually, Walker's season has to be the best in UConn history. In New England college history?

"From the guard position, he dominated games in all facets," Blaney said. "He dominated in scoring, passing. He dominated in stealing the ball and defense. He dominated in rebounding as a guard. On top of that, he dominated in leadership and attitude. He kept guys in the game, knew when to bark a little, when to nurture.

"I cannot think of anybody who has had a better season."

Blaney said the hardest task Calhoun faced was figuring out how and when to use seven freshmen.

"Five would play a ton and he had to intermingle them over a season and in the course of the game itself," Blaney said. "I marvel the way he handled Shabazz Napier. Jim's understanding of the pulse of the team, when to plug those young guys, was remarkable."

Not getting picked among 68 teams for the NCAA Tournament by Sports Illustrated in the preseason would be a source of motivation, a source Calhoun has invoked a number of times.

"That was the start of saying, 'OK, let's show somebody we're not that bad,'" Blaney said. "Every tournament we were in, we won. Maui was a great field. The Big East, five wins in five nights, we've gotten notes from two people we respect a great deal who called it the single greatest achievement in basketball history."

One was Howard Garfinkel, the Godfather of Five Star basketball. The other was Bob Knight.

Many in the national media would find superlatives for UConn's victory over Butler, too. Worst title game ever, etc. Still, you don't hold a team to 18.8 percent shooting, breaking a record set in 1941 — Blaney was 2, Calhoun wasn't born — without stellar defense.

"Looking at the tape, we pretty much contested every shot," Blaney said. "That's not something done very often. I think Butler was surprised by our length."

Blaney said the coaches always write things like he's 6-3, but he has 6-7 arms on scouting reports. It is a warning.

"If you have that kind of player, you have to be careful how you pass and shoot. Jeremy Lamb blocking [Shelvin] Mack's first shot was really important. I thought Alex Oriakhi had one of his great games. He competed like crazy. Roscoe [Smith] was all over the place, contesting …"

Blaney called Lamb's ability to cover Mack one-on-one "critical. And I thought Shabazz turned the game around by his pressure to start the second half. At halftime Jim said if we play faster and harder defensively, our offense will pick up. It did."

Like Calhoun, Blaney said he'll take a little time before he knows if he'll be back, then adds, "I hope to do it again."

"Jim is such a good friend to me. It's his show. It's not my show. We are somewhat two of a kind. We love to be in the gym, immersed in basketball. That's what he has allowed me to do. More than anything, he trusts me. That's the thing that has made it easy here. I can say things to him without being afraid he's going to get mad or whatever. Truth is, most of the time we agree on what we're trying to do."

And they can agree this ride was magic. And for that gift, Blaney has nothing to say but thank you.

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