ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Jim Calhoun's dream was fueled in the mid-1980s by Reggie Lewis, an ill-fated kid from Baltimore.
It was stoked last May, when Richard Hamilton decided to stay around for another year of college. It grew this past winter, when Calhoun and his staff felt compelled to keep an eye on other contenders and his team was hardened in a hothouse of a conference.
Calhoun's rise to the top of college basketball was completed Monday night at Tropicana Field, where his Connecticut Huskies surprised everyone but themselves with a 77-74 victory over top-ranked Duke to win the NCAA championship in the school's first trip to the Final Four.
"The Duke fans couldn't believe it," said Khalid El- Amin, Connecticut's roly-poly sophomore point guard. "I looked into their section and they just looked like they were shocked. I can't take anything away from Duke, they're a great team, but there was a lot of shell shock when the buzzer finally went off."
There was little in the locker room of Connecticut, a team that spent 10 weeks atop the rankings this season but entered the postseason No. 3. While Duke romped unbeaten through 19 games against Atlantic Coast Conference competition, the Huskies had to deal with Miami, St. John's and other close callers in the Big East.
Even then, Calhoun thought big and plotted for the postseason, as his staff studied the final of the Great Alaska Shootout, where Cincinnati handed Duke its only regular-season loss, way back on Nov. 28.
"The game plan started somewhere in November, when I started to just watch games and take notes," Calhoun said. "We looked hard at Duke, Cincinnati, Maryland, just in case. We started preparing ourselves if we had a chance to meet one of these teams down the line."
The Huskies executed Calhoun's plan to perfection, as they limited National Player of the Year Elton Brand to just eight field-goal attempts, exploited Duke's defensive switches, made Trajan Langdon handle the ball and set some mean screens for Hamilton.
The All-America forward continually beat the Blue Devils with 27 points, and fulfilled the anticipation that began last spring, when Hamilton kept a state waiting before he decided to delay his shot at an NBA career.
When Calhoun arrived in the nondescript college town of Storrs, Conn., in 1986, talents like Hamilton's didn't consider it a desired destination.
The Huskies had an all-time NCAA tournament record of 4-14, and the Big East was turning out NCAA champions like Georgetown and Villanova. In a league that also revolved around Syracuse and St. John's, Calhoun set about turning a regional team into a national one.
A native of Braintree, Mass., who went into the business in part because his high school coach was there for him when his father died, Calhoun played collegiately for American International in Division II. That's the level he entered college coaching, but he quickly got Northeastern University on the fast track.
Calhoun upgraded the Boston school and took it to two NCAA tournaments, but he was coming off a 13-15 season in 1983 when he got lucky with an overlooked Baltimore recruit. The second man off the bench for a legendary Dunbar High team, Lewis immediately made Northeastern an NCAA regular.
By the time Lewis, who died a controversial death as a Boston Celtics star in 1993, became New England's all-time leading scorer, Calhoun had used him and a roster that included other Baltimoreans as a springboard to the Big East.
Calhoun is a combative Irishman who was on an emotional roller coaster this month, as he gained a granddaughter and lost longtime manager Joe McGinn to a lengthy fight with kidney disease. Calhoun will phone media critics to argue their points, and there are plenty of them, as Connecticut is followed by beat writers from more than a dozen daily newspapers.
Along with the women's program that won an NCAA title in 1995, the Huskies are a mania in a state that doesn't have a single franchise in the four major leagues. Whatever Calhoun had accomplished in 12 previous seasons at Connecticut, however, it wasn't enough.
Kentucky and North Carolina are the only other programs to reach the Sweet 16 seven times in the 1990s, but the NCAAs had become a series of frustrations for the Huskies. They were eliminated by eventual champions UCLA(1995) and Duke (1991), but the 1990 loss to the Blue Devils was the one that stuck with Calhoun.
Connecticut's first NCAA team under Calhoun lost a regional final on a last-second shot in overtime by Christian Laettner. Before Monday night, that was the greatest game Calhoun had been involved in.
"We're a great basketball team," Calhoun said. "We beat another great basketball team, the best team we've played all year."
It was the second straight year that Duke's tournament favorite status fizzled at Tropicana Field, where the Blue Devils blew a 17-point lead to Kentucky here a year ago in the South Regional final.