Nothing's automatic for UConn men

UConn's Alex Oriakhi, left, defends DePaul's Cleveland Melvin during a Big East tournament game earlier in the week at Madison Square Garden. UConn defeated DePaul in the first round 81-67 and eventually lost to top-seeded Syracuse in the quarterfinals. The Huskies are 20-13 overall and expecting an NCAA tournament bid when the pairings are announced this evening.
UConn's Alex Oriakhi, left, defends DePaul's Cleveland Melvin during a Big East tournament game earlier in the week at Madison Square Garden. UConn defeated DePaul in the first round 81-67 and eventually lost to top-seeded Syracuse in the quarterfinals. The Huskies are 20-13 overall and expecting an NCAA tournament bid when the pairings are announced this evening. Seth Wenig/ AP Photo

Selection Sunday will be a nerve-wracking day for the UConn men's basketball team.

While all signs point to the Huskies receiving an at-large bid in the 68-team NCAA tournament field, they'll have to sweat it out until watching the official announcement tonight on television.

"I was nervous last year, and I knew we were making it," sophomore Shabazz Napier said. "I will probably be nervous again. That's just how I am."

Only the destination and the seed remained in question last season after UConn recovered from a shaky regular season finish to roar to five wins in five days to capture the automatic bid that comes with winning the Big East tournament championship. The Huskies completed their magical run by claiming the program's third national championship.

They're taking a different route this time after bowing out in the Big East tournament quarterfinals Thursday with a 58-55 loss to top-seeded Syracuse. The Huskies stand at 20-13 overall.

Since coach Jim Calhoun arrived in Storrs in 1986, only one UConn team has reached the NCAA tournament with double digit losses. The Huskies went 18-10 (9-7 in the Big East) in 1990-91 and ended up winning two games in the NCAA tournament before losing to Duke in the Sweet Sixteen.

They're attempting to become just the fifth Big East team to go to the NCAA tournament as an at-large team after posting a losing conference record, joining Boston College (7-9, 1985), Providence (7-9, 1989), Villanova (7-9, 1991) and Seton Hall (8-10, 1994).

It's been awhile since UConn has been in this wait-and-see situation on Selection Sunday.

You have to go back to 2000-01 to find a season when they were squarely on the bubble on Selection Sunday. The Huskies went 19-10 overall and 8-8 in the conference during the regular season and then lost their conference tournament opener. They wound up in the NIT.

Falling short this season would be a huge disappointment for the Huskies, who entered the regular season as one of contenders to win a national championship. They underachieved while dealing with more than their share of adversity.

Freshman Ryan Boatright lost nine games to an NCAA suspension and Calhoun missed 11 games - three for an NCAA suspension and eight on a medical leave of absence because of a lower back condition.

The Huskies had with their full team and coaching staff for only 13 of 33 games, going 9-4.

Calhoun rejoined the team the day before the regular-season finale and helped spark a turnaround. UConn beat Pittsburgh Feb. 3 and defeated DePaul and West Virginia in its first two Big East tournament games for its first three-game winning streak since late December.

Syracuse ended UConn's run Thursday by rallying from an eight-point deficit in the second half.

The Huskies enter postseason play - whether it will be NCAA or NIT - playing perhaps their best basketball of the season.

"I arrived last Friday (Feb. 2) in the gym, not knowing after four weeks what was going to happen," Calhoun said. "Little did I know that I'd find a new team. Not that we were bad or anything else before but just who we were and what we were was different. ... This is a good basketball team."

Good enough to catch the eye of the NCAA tournament selection committee?

The Huskies will find out tonight. Most projections make them a nine or 10 seed in the field.

Wherever they're headed, they're in a happy place.

"All that stuff that we went throughout the season - all the downfalls, the losses, you can go down the list with Ryan and things like that - it kind of killed our confidence," freshman Andre Drummond said. "Now we know what we've got to do going into the NCAA tournament."

g.keefe@theday.com

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