WASHINGTON -- The Horde was present, its pens and tape recorders ready, its microphones and cameras primed, as the coaches and players from the University of Connecticut men's basketball team trudged down the steps for practice at George Washington's Smith Center yesterday.
The Huskies barely blinked at the commotion.
Back in the days before Jim Calhoun arrived, Connecticut got more media attention than any mediocre program in the country. Then came the run of five 20-win seasons in seven years, which included a 31-6 team getting within a last-second jumper by Duke's Christian Laettner of reaching the 1990 Final Four.
And, finally, there was yesterday, when the Huskies reached No. 1 in the national polls for the first time in school history. With the Connecticut women's team already there, it marks the first time that a school can claim the top spot for the men and women in the same week.
"No one has said, 'We don't like to be No. 1,' " said Calhoun. "But we'd like to be No. 1 in April."
That the Huskies are even in this lofty position is slightly amazing, considering where they were a little more than two weeks ago. Playing then-No. 7 Kansas at Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Mo., second-ranked Connecticut suffered an embarrassing 88-59 defeat. Calhoun figured his team's hope of being No. 1 this season was over until next month's NCAA tournament.
"I thought we'd get bumped down quite a bit, and you knew it was going to be difficult to get back up there," said Calhoun, whose 19-1 Huskies will try to live up to their ranking and, more importantly, preserve their perfect Big East record when they meet Georgetown tonight at USAir Arena. "But we since have proved that it was just a blip in the schedule."
When Massachusetts lost at George Washington a week ago Saturday, Connecticut moved back into the hunt for No. 1. When top-ranked North Carolina lost at Maryland and then-No. 2 Kansas lost at Oklahoma State last week, the No. 3 Huskies leapfrogged to the top by winning their nationally televised game Sunday at Syracuse.
The Connecticut players looked at their loss to the Jayhawks as the turning point of a season that began amid doubts -- albeit from the outside -- of this kind of success, given the early departure of All-American Donyell Marshall to the NBA. It was another chance to silence the critics, of which there are many in a state where Huskies basketball is more religion than sport.
Success no surprise
That the Huskies are off to such a good start isn't that surprising, considering the talent they returned and the relative inexperience of the rest of the Big East. Sophomore guard Ray Allen, the Big East Rookie of the Year last season and a Player of the Year candidate this year, has filled the scoring role left by Marshall's absence. Sophomore Doron Sheffer is one of the league's top point guards. Nearly nine players average in double-figure minutes.
"I think it's all relative," said senior forward Donny Marshall, who emerged from the shadow of his namesake to become the team's emotional leader and its second-lead ing scorer. "If we were 1-19, then people could say we miss Donyell. It would have been nice to have him, but I think we've proved we can be just as good a team without him. It's nice for our sense of pride."
It's also relative from another aspect. Before the Huskies could celebrate their win at the Carrier Dome and their impending rise to No. 1, they received a piece of horrific news: According to police in Portland, Conn., the mother of walk-on Justin Srb was murdered at about 3 p.m. Sunday. The player's father had died of cancer in December.
"As my wife put it, 'Something like this should make you appreciate what you have,' " said Calhoun, who broke the news to Srb and the rest of the team Sunday night. "It put things in the right balance."
If any team in the country can handle the attention that comes with being No. 1, it's the Huskies.
Even in the good old days of Dom Perno -- as well as the bad old days of Dom Perno -- the basketball coach was under more scrutiny than the governor. The Horde, a group of a dozen or so beat writers from Hartford to Greenwich, became part of a much larger traveling circus known as the Big East.
"The bandwagon," one member of the Horde said yesterday, "has become a rock tour."
No. 1 in Israel, too
It is even big in Israel, where Calhoun's pipeline has brought a number of players, the latest being Sheffer. The Connecticut games are broadcast all over the country. "I'm sure they know we're No. 1," said Sheffer, who followed Nadav Henefeld to Storrs.
But the Huskies going to No. 1 is huge in their home state. Calhoun received several congratulatory messages yesterday, both at home and in his office, as well as at the hotel where the team is staying here. One, in fact, was from the governor, Republican John Roland.
"I didn't want to tell the governor that I didn't vote for him," said Calhoun, a lifelong Democrat.