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April 13, 2011
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April 13, 2011

The Redemption Of Youth


VINDICATION. NO OTHER WORD CAN BETTER SUM UP THE FEELING AROUND Jim Calhoun and the Connecticut Huskies after the school won its third national championship with a victory over Butler at Houston's Reliant Stadium. If Duke's title last year was considered an unexpected return to prominence for a program and its legendary coach, it pales in comparison with this shocking coronation—and reaffirmation—orchestrated by the group from Storrs. Entering the season there was ample reason to note the appropriateness of the nickname for the coaches' locker room in Gampel Pavilion—THE BUNKER, as a sign next to the door reads. UConn was embattled, fighting to retain its luster as one of the nation's best. So was its renowned and combative coach, whose program still seemed to be recovering from its upset loss to George Mason in the 2006 regional final and the subsequent exodus of talent to the NBA.

While the Huskies made it to the Final Four in '09, the three other seasons since the loss to Mason had ended without a single win in the NCAA tournament. In two of those years UConn had missed the dance entirely. More alarming, the downturn in performance was coupled with a rise in off-court drama. There were player suspensions. There were those departures to the pros. Calhoun went through a third cancer scare and also missed seven games in 2009--10 with an undisclosed medical issue. And, yes, there was the NCAA investigation that returned a finding of improper benefits to a recruit. Two staffers resigned, and Calhoun was left with a three-game league suspension for the 2011--12 season as well as the image of a coach who was losing control of his program.

Such was the environment around this year's Huskies, who met doubters at practically every step of their unlikely journey to the title. The team, picked 10th in the preseason Big East coaches' poll and the recipient of exactly zero votes in the initial national coaches' Top 25 poll, was considered too thin and way too young to do anything of substance in its rugged and deep conference.

A surprising three-game run to win the Maui Invitational in November led to comparisons with Ball State, a mediocre MAC program that in 2001 made a statement at the event but fell back into obscurity over the remainder of the season. Indeed UConn finished .500 in the Big East, with a 4--9 record against the league's other NCAA tournament teams, and was the ninth seed in the conference tournament. No team could possibly win five games in five days to win the title, could it? And if it could, how much could that team possibly have left for the real tournament, the one in which reputations are really made and burnished?

In the wake of the NCAA's ruling of recruiting violations, it may have been easy for some to root against the cantankerous Calhoun this season, but it should have been harder to root against the Huskies' players. They were a quiet but confident bunch motivated by both the preseason slights and the need to restore the honor of the program they represented.

Junior guard Kemba Walker evolved from last year's unassuming work-in-progress into one of the nation's most exciting and dominant players and a polished media presence. His performance over the first half of the season gave his younger teammates time to develop and allowed them all to dream big. Sophomore Alex Oriakhi began to blossom into a consistent force. You rarely heard a word from star freshman Jeremy Lamb or any of his class cohorts. They made their statements on the floor, with a combination of timely scoring, rebounding and on-ball defense.

Simply put, this team was fun to watch. There were buzzer beaters and blowouts, an evolution from a one-man show into an ensemble effort and an amazing proclivity to survive knockout games. On the season UConn played 14 tournament games and won them all. Each was important, but the final one changes the legacy of the coach and brightens the future of the program, too.

Calhoun responded to the preseason skepticism by delivering what will be remembered as his best coaching job at the school. He wrung every drop of potential out of a roster with one gifted upper-class point guard and a bunch of precocious, developing youngsters. The Huskies' 11--0 romp through the Big East and NCAA tournaments will go down as one of the greatest postseason runs of all time and also lifts Calhoun into rarefied coaching air. His third national championship ties him with Bob Knight and makes him one of five coaches alltime to win more than two, trailing only UCLA's John Wooden (10) and Kentucky's Adolph Rupp and Duke's Mike Krzyzewski (four each).

For the program, the 2011 season reinforces national legitimacy. On the recruiting trail Connecticut's staff can now promote two Final Fours and a title in the last three years. Next season's roster is well-stocked with talent—most of whom now have valuable tournament experience—and now future recruits can have confidence that the Huskies will remain at the elite level. So can UConn's fans. Their program is back.