Underdog Huskies have been here before
You’ll have to forgive the Connecticut Huskies if they act like they’ve been here before. The defending national champions have just gotten kind of used to coming into the Big East tournament as underdogs.
For the second straight year, UConn enters Big East tournament play with its NCAA tournament hopes on thin ice. But given last year’s results, this year’s NBA-level talent and the team’s tough-as-nails head coach, it would be unwise to count the Huskies out — even for a second.
It hasn’t been the smoothest road for Connecticut (18-12) this season, as player turnover, injuries and NCAA sanctions all have threatened to derail its quest for a second straight national championship. But the Huskies have persevered through it all and given themselves at least a puncher’s chance at returning to Final Four glory.
First things first, though, and that’s the Big East bracket, a veritable gantlet that Connecticut has conquered seven times since its inception in 1980.
To take home an eighth Big East crown this year, the Huskies once again will have to win five games in five days. To lock up a spot in the NCAA tournament, they’ll have to at least win one — though it probably wouldn’t hurt their chances to set their sights a little higher.
"We’ve got too many top-50 games and too many things have gone on with this team," UConn associate head coach George Blaney told the Hartford Courant on Sunday. "But I would like not to have it in the hands of the (NCAA selection committee). We just need to go and win games."
Winning games is a feat that has challenged UConn since 2011 gave way to 2012. After starting this season 12-1, UConn plummeted, dropping 11 of its final 17 regular-season games since the start of January.
Connecticut’s 8-10 record in conference competition earned them — or perhaps relegated them to — a No. 9 seed in the Big East tournament, which kicks off at noon ET Tuesday when the Huskies face No. 16 seed DePaul in a matinee first-round game at Madison Square Garden.
It’s not exactly where UConn hoped it would be — especially in comparison with fellow Big East stalwarts Syracuse, Marquette, Notre Dame, Georgetown, Louisville and West Virginia, all of which have at least a first-round bye in the tournament. But there’s still room for optimism.
After all, the Huskies didn’t exactly enter last year’s Big East tournament with a full head of steam, either.
Connecticut began last year’s Big East tourney in much the same spot, teetering on the bubble at an impressive 21-9 overall, but as the conference’s No. 9 seed after a ho-hum 9-9 record in league play — a run that included four losses in the team’s final five regular-season games.
The Huskies routed lowly DePaul in the first round, and then went on to secure four wins over ranked teams over the next four days. The Huskies dispatched No. 22 Georgetown, No. 3 Pittsburgh, No. 11 Syracuse and No. 14 Louisville on the way to a Big East title and a No. 3 national seed, both of which came out of nowhere.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Connecticut rattled off six NCAA tournament wins — leaving Bucknell, Cincinnati, San Diego State, Arizona, Kentucky and Butler in its dust — to earn head coach Jim Calhoun his third NCAA championship since he took over the program in 1986.
This year, though, the Huskies have had to play nearly half of their season without Calhoun. And it’s not unreasonable to think that their fearless leader’s absence has had a residual effect on the team, which lost consensus All-American Kemba Walker to the NBA.
Calhoun missed three Big East games at the beginning of this season because of NCAA sanctions stemming from recruiting violations involving 2008 recruit Nate Miles (UConn went 2-1 in his absence). And on Feb. 3, Calhoun took a leave of absence to deal with lingering spinal stenosis, the painful narrowing of the spine.
After missing eight more games (UConn went 3-5 during that stretch), Calhoun made his triumphant return to the floor for Saturday’s win over Pittsburgh — just five days after back surgery — and his return helped to invigorate a Connecticut team that was in serious need of some motivation.
"He just brings that energy, and it just makes me want to fight harder, even when I’m tired, on my last straw," Huskies guard Shabazz Napier told reporters after the win. "He just pumps his fist, and I’m like, ‘I’m not done, I’m going to keep going.’ And he did that for everybody."
Of course, it’s not the first time Calhoun has run into health problems since taking over the UConn program. The legendary coach is a three-time cancer survivor who battled prostate cancer in 2003 and skin cancer twice, most recently in 2008.
Historically speaking, the Hall of Famer hasn’t always come back to a blaze of glory — though he has more often than not.
In 2003, after Calhoun’s return, Connecticut went on reach the Sweet 16, when the Huskies lost to Texas.
In 2009 — the first season after Calhoun’s most recent skin cancer diagnosis — Connecticut entered the Big East tournament as the conference’s No. 3 seed and a lock for the NCAA tournament.
After byes in the first two rounds, the Huskies lost their quarterfinal matchup with Syracuse — a 127-117, six-overtime thriller that was arguably the best game in Big East tournament history. But even with the loss, UConn earned a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance and went on to a Final Four appearance.
Last time Calhoun missed extensive time, however, the Huskies could take the momentum of his return only so far.
In January 2010, Calhoun took a leave of absence for stress-related issues but returned after missing seven games. UConn entered Big East tournament play with a 17-15 record that year after a tumultuous 7-11 run through the conference schedule, needing a deep run to have any chance at making the tournament.
But No. 13 seed St. John’s trampled the Huskies in the first round of the tournament, sending them straight to the NIT.
Things don’t look great for Connecticut right now, and the fear is that this year’s postseason run will look a lot more like 2010 than it will resemble 2011. But if you take a step back, take a deep breath and consider the facts, it’s clear UConn still has the time and the NBA-level talent to turn things around.
Super-freshman Andre Drummond has averaged 10.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game in what may be his only season in Storrs; most mock drafts have him projected as the No. 2 overall pick in this summer’s NBA Draft. Sophomore Jeremy Lamb, another likely NBA lottery pick, has led the team in scoring this season, averaging 17.6 points to go with 4.8 rebounds per game.
Other potential future NBA draft picks include junior center Alex Oriakhi, who averaged 6.9 points and 4.8 rebounds during the regular season, and freshman star Ryan Boatright, who has averaged 10.3 points, 3.2 rebounds and 4.1 assists in 21 games for the Huskies this year.
In addition, the Huskies have Calhoun, who, despite his poor health, will continue to serve as the kind of unflappable leader a team such as Connecticut needs — especially in a time of crisis.
With a win Tuesday against DePaul, the Huskies are likely in the NCAA tourney. A second-round win over West Virginia on Wednesday almost certainly would book their spot.
And as we learned last year, anything can happen from there. All Connecticut needs is a chance.
Follow Sam Gardner on Twitter: @sam_gardner