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April 13, 2011
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April 13, 2011

From Pups To Huskies


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"It's happened so fast," says Calhoun. "It's the phenomenon of television going into homes. It's the interest that always existed here in basketball. It's these kids playing the games. It's everything together. We have credibility. We can captivate this entire state."

CALHOUN IS IN HIS SIXTH SEASON AT CONNECTICUT. When he arrived in 1986 after 14 successful but quiet seasons at Northeastern, he was told that the situation could either turn out very well or be a disaster. The Huskies, despite a basketball tradition in the state and at the school—Connecticut had been champion of the old Yankee Conference 18 times—were far out of sync with their brethren in the high-powered Big East. Local recruiting, which had been fine in the Yankee Conference (UConn became a charter member of the Big East in 1979--80), wasn't enough to enable the Huskies to compete with the top schools in the new league. Calhoun was given an unusually long contract (seven years) to try to find an answer.

"I was at the meetings when he was hired," Tolokan says. "A lot of people wanted to give him a five-year contract. Dee Rowe, who had coached here, stood up and said it had to be seven years, that we were so far behind that it would take at least seven years for us to catch up."

Seven years? In Calhoun's second season the first important moment arrived. UConn won the postseason NIT championship, beating Ohio State 72--67 in the final at Madison Square Garden. A sign commemorating the feat was placed on Interstate 84 at the exit to Storrs. An idea was established: Winning was possible.

Seven years? In Calhoun's fourth season, 1989--90, the Huskies tied for the regular-season Big East title, won the Big East tournament and advanced to the final eight in the NCAA tournament, where they lost by a point to Duke on Christian Laettner's awkward jump shot at the buzzer. That fourth year was a walk on strange and different clouds.

"There was a flow to that team, the way it played," Calhoun says. "We may be 15--1 now, but I don't sense that we have the same sort of flow yet. That team.... I remember Gale Goodrich came up to me at the NCAAs and said he had been rooting for us because we played the same way his teams had played at UCLA for John Wooden in the 1960s."

The season of flow gave an idea of how a good Calhoun team would play: Speed would be an asset. Defense would be a gruesome constant. Size would not be so important. A good Calhoun team would press you, trap you, make you run. A good Calhoun team would be smart, patient on offense but also very quick. A good Calhoun team would also tell you, if you were a high school senior looking for a place to play basketball, that Connecticut just might be the place.

"That team opened doors to us in places we never had been," Calhoun says. "We could go national. We could be Kansas, North Carolina. We capitalized. While the iron was hot, we went ironing."

Recruiting is now almost a two-year process, with many high school players signing early letters of intent in November of their senior year. The eight freshmen in the Huskies' program this year, including starter Donyell Marshall, were recruited during that season of flow. These were the top-line kids who watched that team on television: kids from Reading, Pa.; Los Angeles; Atlanta; Phoenix; Jacksonville; and Federal Way, Wash. These were the kids who had never been available to UConn, kids with basketball pedigrees, players in the all-star games and summer camps.

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