Calhoun's drive and his belief in his players have ignited UConn's postseason fire
Houston - An improbable, captivating journey will end tonight at Reliant Stadium.
Victorious or not, the University of Connecticut men's basketball team has secured its place in the school's history books and in the fans' hearts by exceeding expectations and reaching the NCAA championship game.
This is the same team that began the season unranked, with the storm clouds of an NCAA investigation hanging over its heads. Sports Illustrated didn't even predict that the Huskies, who would rely heavily on underclassmen - including five freshmen - would make the NCAA field of 68 teams.
Indeed, UConn finished ninth in the Big East Conference and lost four of its last five regular season games.
But now the Huskies have won 10 games in a row, including an amazing nine in the 19 days prior to the Final Four, to stand at 31-9. They will attempt to win the program's third national championship - the first since 2004 - tonight against Butler. Game time is 9:23 p.m.
"Honestly, I think it would be the greatest achievement ever at this school because what we've done so far, as far as being overachievers …" junior Kemba Walker said. "If we win the national championship, it will probably be the best run in UConn history."
It's hard to argue with Walker, UConn's inspirational team leader and All-American. The Huskies majored in overachieving this season.
The remarkable journey started last March, the moment UConn ended a disappointing season in the second round of the NIT. The Huskies expected to make the NCAA tournament, but suffered on and off the court. Coach Jim Calhoun missed seven games due to an undisclosed medical problem.
"I was happy it was over, honestly," Walker said. "It was a very disappointing season. I couldn't take it anymore."
Walker and fellow team captain Donnell Beverly planted the first seeds of the team's makeover in the spring, convincing the returning players and incoming freshmen to stick around on campus during the summer. They laid out expectations as far as work ethic and attitude.
Everyone needed a fresh start.
"We came back with less talent and less experience," sophomore Alex Oriakhi said. "We basically started from scratch."
Calhoun also was determined to transform the team.
Following a press conference announcing his new five-year contract last summer, Calhoun vowed to return the Huskies to national prominence. He passionately defended a program under fire from the NCAA, which was looking into allegations of major rules violations connected to the recruitment of Nate Miles and his relationship with former UConn team manager turned agent Josh Nochimson.
"It's not a program on the fall," Calhoun said then. "It's a program on the rise. We want to get back to what we think is, not necessarily our rightful place, but the place that we've had in college basketball."
Not a great start
The season began on an inauspicious note.
On Friday, Oct. 15, when the Huskies participated in First Night, the celebration that kicks off the season, Calhoun was in Indianapolis appearing before the NCAA Committee on Infractions to defend his program and himself.
In February, the NCAA punished UConn for major violations, issuing penalties that included recruiting restrictions, scholarship reductions and three years probation but no post-season ban. Calhoun was suspended for the first three Big East Conference games next season for his failure to promote an atmosphere of compliance.
But the news didn't impact the Huskies on the court. Instead, they adopted Calhoun's prize-fighter mentality, absorbing punches and battling through. The NCAA punishment seemed to fuel Calhoun's competitive fire.
From the start, Calhoun instilled confidence in his young team, making them believe that anything was possible. The Huskies fed off their Hall of Fame coach.
"We don't back down from a fight," freshman Shabazz Napier said. "We're willing to battle anytime and that's the type of person he is. … He's like a father to us. … No one really believed how good we could be, but he did."
UConn burst back onto the national scene in late November, beating two ranked teams on the way to winning the Maui Invitational. Walker quickly established himself as a rising star, starting what arguably turned into the single greatest season by any UConn player.
The joy ride was under way but not without a bumpy stretch. The mental and physical grind of the Big East schedule wore the Huskies down. They lost seven of their last 11 games.
When UConn blew a late lead while losing the regular-season finale against Notre Dame on March 5, expectations dipped again.
The next day in practice, Calhoun challenged his team, putting them through an intense, more than two-hour workout at Gampel Pavilion. Refocused and recharged, they headed into post-season.
"That really turned things around," Oriakhi said. "Coach said, 'I'm not going to quit on you guys,' and I think we bought into that."
During the post-season, the Huskies have played inspired basketball, staging a memorable run through the Big East tournament, winning a record five games in five grueling days in New York City's Madison Square Garden.
With five NCAA tournament wins, including Saturday's 56-55 victory over Kentucky in the national semifinals, the Huskies improved to 13-0 in tournament play this season, counting the Maui Invitational.
They've displayed the poise and confidence of a team beyond their years. Nothing has fazed them. They've aced team chemistry, a subject that last year's team flunked.
"Their resiliency is remarkable because they are so young," associate head coach George Blaney said. "I don't know if they're resilient because they don't know any better, or because we've taught them that. We'll take it either way."
Walker has become the face of UConn basketball, delivering more clutch moments in one season than most players do in their careers. Jeremy Lamb, a cool-headed freshman, has emerged as Walker's scoring sidekick. Other Huskies are making valuable contributions.
Along the way, Calhoun, 68, has fallen in love with this team. He's marveled at their tireless work ethic and eager-to-please attitude. The Huskies have helped him through some difficult personal losses - the death of his college roommate and sister-in-law - this season.
"I don't remember a team giving me as much joy as this team has," Calhoun said.
Those in Calhoun's inner circle say he's done his best coaching job in his 25 years at UConn. With a win tonight, he can become just the fifth Division I coach to win three or more national championships.
Tonight, UConn will end its improbable journey, one that nobody, not even on the coaching staff, could have foresee in October.
"We felt they were going to be good," Blaney said. "How good? I can't say that we saw this coming."
UConn’s run to the championship
Oct. 15: On the first official day of practice, Coach Jim Calhoun is not at Gampel Pavilion but in Indianapolis, appearing before the NCAA Committee on Infractions to defend his men’s basketball program and himself against allegations of major rules violations.
Nov. 24: Unranked UConn beats its second straight nationally ranked team — Kentucky, 84-67 — to complete a surprising run to the Maui Invitational title. The following week, the Huskies enter the Associated Press Top 25 at No. 7, the second best entrance by any team since 1989-90.
Feb. 22: The NCAA announces sanctions against UConn and Calhoun, ranging from recruiting restrictions, scholarship reductions, three years probation, and suspension of Calhoun for the first three Big East games next season, citing him for a failure to promote an atmosphere of compliance.
March 6: The day after blowing a late lead against Notre Dame, ending the regular season with their seventh loss in 11 games, the Huskies recommit and refocus during an intense practice that players call a turning point.
March 12: UConn completes a record-setting run through the Big East tournament, beating Louisville, 69-66, in the final, its fifth win in five days.
March 26: The Huskies win for the ninth time in 19 days, defeating Arizona, 65-63, in the West Regional final in Anaheim, earning the school’s fourth trip to the NCAA Final Four. Calhoun says he hasn’t experienced anything like it in his 39 years as a Division I head coach.
April 2: UConn survives an exhausting national semifinal, beating Kentucky, 56-55, in Houston to advance to the title game for the third time, the first since 2004.
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