If Calhoun’s done, it’s a bitter ending

In the end, with one minute to go, Jim Calhoun sat on his bench with his legs crossed and the end of this miserable season laid out before him.

He focused on the slow end when his team had the ball. But during pauses in the action — and at times when eight-seeded Iowa State had the ball — the legendary UConn coach’s head wandered. He would suddenly look off, away from the action, staring absently toward the stands, or at nothing at all, or perhaps toward his own unknown future.

When the buzzer finally sounded — and UConn had been bounced from the NCAA tournament in a 77-64 defeat — Calhoun stood without a moment’s hesitation and headed briskly toward the Cyclones’ bench. He shook hands politely but as fast as he could. Then he was walking off the court, seeming to limp, alone among so many people on the floor. He headed to the tunnel without a word to his players or his coaches. He was gone.

It has been a trying season for Calhoun and his defending-champion team. Calhoun himself was suspended for three games after the NCAA found recruiting violations under his tenure, and he missed a month with health issues. A team that started the season ranked No. 4 in the country became only the second Calhoun team to lose an NCAA tournament opening game, and the first defending champion to do so since 1996.

“Someone just asked me about what I thought about the disaster season,” he said a short time later. “UConn goes to the NCAA tournament and gets 20 or more wins in the year, I’m probably pretty happy about that.”

It was a gracious thing to say, for his players and his fans, but it was hard to believe. The end — from Iowa State’s dominant performance to the mood of misery that hugged the UConn players afterward — was a painfully fitting finish to a season that was more a grind than a joy and has led to rampant speculation that Calhoun may step down now that it’s mercifully over.

“We’re talking about tonight’s game,” he said. “We’re not talking about me, I think we’re talking about that. I’m going to get on the plane tomorrow, go home, and do what I usually so, and meet up with the team on Monday.

“So as far as my own personal thing, I don’t think it has any relevance here, to be honest with you.”

That’s obviously not an answer, and only Calhoun knows what comes next — if he even knows yet. Deciding to end a career, particularly one as illustrious as Calhoun’s, would not be easy, particularly so soon after such a loss.

But if this was the end, then it did not end properly. No legend — despite controversy and struggle and the very real fact that in sports you almost always end a season with a loss — should have to exit under such a miserable cloud of disappointment.

Much happened in Louisville on Thursday during the so-called second round of the NCAA tournament that, for many, may mask what could be Calhoun’s final moments as a head coach. Top seed Kentucky easily handled a gritty 16th-seeded Western Kentucky team with an 81-66 victory. Murray State, a sixth seed, rolled past 11th-seeded Colorado State 58-41. And three seed Marquette beat BYU 88-68.

But it was Iowa State’s fine performance that played out like some kind of 40-minute metaphor for the defending champion’s letdown of a season.

“They just played at a different speed than we did, and that’s why they won the game,” Calhoun said.

Yes, they did. Iowa State shot 48.1 percent from the field and out-rebounded UConn 41-24. Four Cyclones scored in double digits, led by Chris Allen’s 20, in a balanced and well-oiled attack that made UConn seem listless, dazed and overmatched — and again a talented team defined by its ability to underperform.

That was certainly true for Andre Drummond, the big man with the NBA future and a game that’s as apt a reminder as any that Connecticut played beneath both expectations and ability all season long. Drummond had just two points and three rebounds — and five fouls.

What he thought the difference in the game was?

“They knocked down a bunch of threes, and they executed their plays,” he said.

Add not understanding the magnitude of your shortcomings to the list of UConn’s problems.

No, it was not a good night for UConn, and there’s no telling what the future holds for the team’s coach. Calhoun is 69 years old. He is a three-time cancer survivor, he has a program that’s come under the attention of NCAA investigators, and he just went through a grinding and brutal season, his protestations to the contrary notwithstanding.

So maybe he is in fact done.

If so, it calls to mind what Douglas MacArthur once said: “Old soldiers never die; they just fade away.”

The same could be said for legendary coaches. And on Thursday, just a year removed from being on top of the college basketball world, Jim Calhoun faded just a little bit more.

You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or email him at foxsportsreiter@gmail.com.