Calhoun leads the way for Huskies
Jim Calhoun wasn’t even supposed to make it through the season, with his seemingly endless health problems, an ongoing NCAA investigation and a team many figured would wind up in the NIT.
This would likely be Calhoun’s Swan Song, and he would be going out in virtual irrelevance. Some of his peers even half-joked it would be on a stretcher.
Instead, there he was on the postgame podium Saturday night, UConn’s 68-year-old, often-ornery Hall of Famer, smiling and sitting just one victory away from his third national title.
A highly improbable one.
Most already know the story by now. Kemba Walker, the charismatic junior out of New York, has taken a bunch of wide-eyed freshmen and sophomores — Kemba's Kids — and made them more than just relevant this season.
But there’s relevant and there’s relevant.
These guys will play Butler for the national championship Monday night.
Yes, a UConn team that was picked to finish 10th in the Big East prior to the start of the season stands just one win away from the title.
“I’m a little surprised,” Walker admitted after UConn’s 56-55 win over Kentucky in the national semifinals. “It’s honestly unbelievable that we’ve got a chance to win this whole thing.”
This was Kemba’s team from the get-go. In fact, it began toward the end of last season when Walker finally understood that he had to step up as a leader, because graduating seniors Jerome Dyson, Stanley Robinson and Gavin Edwards weren’t capable.
But Walker would wear down, and it occurred at the worst possible time, near the end of the regular season when the Huskies dropped four of five.
“There were definitely a few low points,” UConn sophomore big man Alex Oriakhi said. “Many of them, but the loss to Notre Dame was the lowest.”
But this team took on the personality of its coach, Jim Calhoun, one of the most stubborn you-know-whats on the planet.
The Huskies got mad when they heard the Maui Invitational title back in November was a fluke, how eventually they would come back down to earth.
“We heard it all year long,” Walker said.
“It motivated us,” Oriakhi added.
Then they channeled their inner Calhoun.
Here’s a guy who jumped on a plane immediately after radiation treatments a few years ago to head out on the recruiting trail. Calhoun, who has overcome multiple bouts of cancer, also came back quickly from a nasty bike fall in which he broke several ribs.
His resiliency has rubbed off on Kemba and his Kids.
“He’s our leader,” Walker said. “Like our father. He brings our energy, and that gets us going.”
Calhoun is nearing the end of the line, but this group has been refreshing for him. Not just because they are winning, but because of how they are winning.
His last Final Four team in 2006 had four first-round NBA draft picks — Rudy Gay, Hilton Armstrong, Josh Boone and Marcus Williams, and a fifth player, Denham Brown, who was taken in the second round.
But that team flamed out against George Mason with a Final Four berth on the line, largely because of chemistry issues and the distractions of the NBA.
There’s none of that this season. Walker appears completely unfazed by the NBA talk — and the young kids don’t seem to even fully grasp what they have accomplished.
“They just show up and play,” UConn assistant coach Andre LaFleur said.
There was the Maui crown, the Big East tournament championship in which they won an unprecedented five games in five successive nights — and now a handful more NCAA tournament wins.
“It’s crazy,” Walker said.
Walker led the Huskies with 18 points Saturday night, but he became somewhat of a spectator with the game on the line in the closing seconds.
Freshman Shabazz Napier — who is only on the team this season because the Huskies missed out on several point guards (including Kentucky’s Brandon Knight) in recruiting — made what could have been a season-ending turnover when he tried to penetrate the lane with 16 seconds left instead of getting the ball to Walker.
Kentucky had possession, and a 3-pointer could win the game.
“Next play, Coach,” is what Napier told Calhoun when he came off the floor after the ill-advised mistake.
Fourteen seconds later, after Kentucky’s DeAndre Liggins misfired on the potential game-winner, there was Napier — who graduated a year earlier than expected — sealing the deal with a pair of free throws.
“We’re not just Kemba and his little kids anymore,” Napier said with a smile. “We’re a UConn basketball team.”
“I knew he’d make it,” Walker said of Napier. “He’s tough.”
They all are. Just like their coach.