Calhoun along for ride for UConn’s tourney return
BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) Connecticut is back in the NCAA tournament after a one-year absence, and Jim Calhoun will settle on being happy to be along for the ride.
The three-time national champion and long-time coach of the Huskies won’t be in his familiar place behind the bench Thursday, when seventh-seeded UConn (26-8) plays 10th-seeded Saint Joseph’s (24-9) in a second-round East Region matchup at Buffalo.
The 71-year-old Calhoun will instead be riding shotgun from the stands two years after health issues forced him to step down and relinquish the job to his hand-picked successor, Kevin Ollie.
Though Calhoun said Wednesday he was feeling as fit as ever, and acknowledged how much he misses the competition, he made sure to stress this is now Ollie’s team.
”He’s taken it over. He’s done a wonderful job,” said Calhoun, who has assumed the role of special adviser to the athletic director. ”I’m really proud of him.”
Calhoun’s not really gone, and he’s hardly forgotten, even as the Huskies make their first tournament appearance without him since 1979, when Dom Perno was coach.
Ollie praised Calhoun.
”Coach Calhoun is like a father figure to me,” Ollie said, noting he still leans on his mentor for advice. ”I never went in there like I’m going to fill those shoes and try to be coach Calhoun. I’ve got to be Kevin Ollie.”
Senior guard Shabazz Napier noted how Calhoun still provides him pointers.
”He’s there for everybody. I take full advantage of it,” Napier said. ”He’s a smart guy. You don’t have to be a scientist to know that.”
Even Phil Martelli paid Calhoun credit.
The Saint Joe’s coach said the stamp Calhoun placed on UConn over 26 seasons still resonates enough to provide his players focus.
”I think we’re still facing the brand,” Martelli said, noting how Connecticut’s reputation provided his players focus. ”I really do think it helped get us over the celebratory hangover that we had on Monday.”
Here’s five things to watch out for as the Atlantic-10 Conference champion Hawks face a Huskie team that lost to Louisville in the AAC final on Saturday.
HAWKS FLYING HIGH: Saint Joe’s has been a team transformed since a blowout 96-68 loss to crosstown rival Villanova on Dec. 7. They’ve gone 20-5 since, and won three straight to claim their first A-10 tournament title since 1997.
Forward Halil Kanacevic described the loss to Villanova as both the low point of his four-year career, and turning point of the season.
”We hated having that feeling,” Kanacevic said. ”That was probably the worst feeling we’ve had since we’ve been here. We didn’t want to go out like that.”
Kanacevic led the way earning A-10 tournament MVP honors by averaging 15.3 points and 14.3 rebounds.
WELCOME BACK HUSKIES: UConn makes its 32nd tournament appearance a year after the program was barred from postseason play because of academic sanctions.
Losing a year didn’t sit well with Napier.
”I didn’t watch the tournament. I was watching other things,” he said. ”But it fueled a lot of motivation and hunger to get where we’re at now.”
Napier was named the AAC player of the year, and leads the Huskies in scoring (17.4 points), assists (4.9) and steals (1.7).
FAMILIAR SURROUNDINGS: The Huskies’ last tournament visit to Buffalo spurred their 2004 national championship run. They opened with a 70-53 win over Vermont and then beat DePaul 72-55 in city. Three weeks later, they beat Georgia Tech 82-73 for the title.
As it happened, Saint Joseph’s opened in Buffalo the same year as a No. 1 seed. The Hawks won their first three games before a 64-62 loss to Oklahoma State.
Martelli smiled when saying he chose the word ritual over superstition by noting he had the Hawks practice at Buffalo’s Canisius College earlier in the day – just as he did 10 years ago.
NOT LOOKING AHEAD: Ollie doesn’t believe his players need any reminder of how UConn went one-and-done in its last tournament appearance when the ninth-seeded Huskies fell 77-64 to Iowa State two years ago.
”I think they’re not taking anything for granted because they know a special moment can be taken away from them,” Ollie said.
NOT LOOKING AHEAD II: Don’t ask the Hawks about a potential third-round matchup against Villanova, which plays Milwaukee on Thursday.
”We really can’t look at Villanova right now,” senior guard Langston Galloway said. ”If we overlook UConn, we’ll be headed back home to Philly.