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.
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Storrs, CT, USA
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.