UConn reflects on hard-earned effort

Joy of championship win alleviates strain of team burdened by expectations

College Basketball

April 07, 2004|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

SAN ANTONIO - University of Connecticut men's basketball coach Jim Calhoun's game includes a quick wit, a sharp tongue, a grouchy streak. And Calhoun showed those stripes in the wake of another stamp of validation by the program he has built into one of the nation's best over the past two decades.

But after his Huskies had humbled upstart Georgia Tech at the Alamodome, 82-73, to win their second NCAA championship, after Connecticut thoroughly controlled the Yellow Jackets behind strong defense and the all-around efforts of juniors Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon, the old coach from Braintree, Mass., choked up.

Calhoun, who is just over a month shy of his 62nd birthday, had much to contemplate upon this satisfying end to his 18th season in Storrs.

Nearly 14 months ago, he was forced to take a midseason leave of absence to tackle prostate cancer. Five months ago, his team, ranked No. 1 in the preseason, came under scrutiny after getting routed by 16 points in the Preseason National Invitation Tournament by Georgia Tech. That spotlight intensified after back-to-back losses in February at Notre Dame and Pittsburgh dropped the Huskies' record to 19-5, during a period in which Okafor's recurring back problems were causing concern.

"This team proved they could stand up to scrutiny, to disappointments," Calhoun said.

After UConn's dominating vindication Monday, a victory that came on the same day he was denied entry into the Basketball Hall of Fame, Calhoun the leader sounded like Calhoun the student. And he pointed to Okafor and Gordon, unanimous selections to the All-Final Four team. Okafor was the runaway choice as Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four.

"The great thing for me at age 61 is to continue to learn from my kids, and that's a great lesson. Both Ben and Emeka continue to educate their coach," Calhoun said. "Emeka [who has earned a finance degree] gives me great insight into someone who focuses themselves on the task at hand.

"From Ben, I learned that beautiful people can become killers on the basketball court. I think maybe hopefully he learned a tad bit of that from me. I'm not the beautiful person off the court he is. No one's ever called me gentle Jim."

Okafor, the 6-foot-10, first-team All-America center who is expected to declare early for the NBA draft and become a high lottery pick in June, put the perfect an exclamation point on his collegiate career by ruling on the block once again. Gordon, the smooth 6-3 shooting guard who was born in London, could also be NBA-bound. He led the Huskies (33-6) in scoring this season and has made more three-pointers than any player in school history.

With the departure of senior point guard Taliek Brown, the school's all-time assist leader (722) who won 103 games and concluded his four-year run by stifling Georgia Tech sophomore point guard Jarrett Jack, Calhoun figures to lose 60 percent of his starting lineup.

"I wanted so bad for [Gordon] and for Mek [to win an NCAA title], because I do think they're ready for the NBA," he said. "If they're in the position [to be drafted high enough], they should leave, because they're both incredible basketball players, and have accomplished so much in college basketball."

Calhoun already had proved so much before guiding the Huskies to their second NCAA crown in six seasons. He resurrected a Connecticut program shortly after arriving from Northeastern in 1986, and has had the Huskies sniffing at national titles since 1990.

Since 1990, Connecticut has appeared in the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16 round 10 times. Only Duke - which the Huskies eliminated with a thrilling comeback in Saturday's semifinals, five years after beating the Blue Devils to win their first NCAA title - has been there more often (11 times).

"We just kind of immortalized ourselves. After we're dead and gone, we're still going to have this national championship banner," Gordon said. "They're going to be smart enough eventually to induct Coach Calhoun [into the Hall of Fame]. That's a no-brainer."

NOTE: The final drew an 11.0 national rating, the lowest since CBS began broadcasting the event in 1982. That's down from last year's previous low of 12.6.

Despite the title game low, the overall tournament ratings were 24 percent higher this year (6.2, up from last year's 5.0). The rating is the percentage of all homes with TVs, regardless of whether they are in use.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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