Tuesday, January 19, 2010

At Ease?

Assuming Jim Calhoun's current ailment isn't too serious -- and we're told by a university source who spoke with Calhoun Tuesday night that it doesn't appear to be -- we feel comfortable bringing up this point: UConn often seems to play a bit more relaxed and at ease with George Blaney patrolling the sidelines in Calhoun's stead.

This is not to take anything away from Calhoun, a Hall of Famer with two national titles and 816 career victories under his belt. If he is gone for a long time, the Huskies are in some serious trouble. But they can survive -- perhaps even thrive -- for the short term.

UConn is 17-4 in games Calhoun has either missed or left early due to illness (as documented in an only-at-UConn chart the school has on file). The Huskies have won seven of their last eight contests that Calhoun has either missed or left early (and, in two instances, returned). The one loss was a 72-69 heartbreaker two years ago at Georgetown (remember Roy Hibbert's game-winning 3-pointer?).

UConn has won the last two Calhoun-less contests by a combined 87 points. Granted, the opponents were Rutgers and Chattanooga (the latter an NCAA tournament first-round game last year at Wachovia Center in Philly). Still, UConn looked much freer and easier in those games. Likewise in a Dec. 6, 2007 win over Northeastern from which Calhoun was ejected. The team played much more relaxed in the second half under Blaney.

Again, this is not to suggest that UConn is better off without Jim Calhoun. But there's a good chance that, at least tonight, the Huskies will be a little less inclined to be looking over their shoulders each time they take a bad shot or give up an offensive rebound.

***UConn had announced in an e-mail sent out on Monday that Calhoun would not be available to reporters prior to Tuesday's practice, and that the practice would be closed to the media.

Calhoun apparently had a routine medical exam on Tuesday, and it was there he was told he should take the medical leave of absence.

When Blaney spoke to reporters Tuesday at 12:30 p.m., the school had yet to announce Calhoun's situation, and Blaney may not have known himself.

Here's some of what Blaney had to say about the team in general and St. John's in particular:

“Most of Jim’s teams have gotten better from mid-January, late-January on. That’s when their teams really start clicking and really start moving. It seems to me it’s going to be the same this year. “

Blaney, who won 459 games in 30 seasons as a collegiate head coach, also pointed out that two “really, really good” teams last season – Norte Dame and Georgetown – got caught in a rut but could never get out of it. Both teams were picked to finish among the Big East’s elite, but both missed the NCAA tournament altogether.

“Right now, we’re a little caught,” Blaney admitted. “But we can get out of it, I think.”

***Blaney was asked if the team felt a sense of urgency right now.

"The urgency word is a word we use to get them to play every play. The urgency word, the way it sounds like you’re using it, is, ‘Are we afraid or nervous about where we are?’ We know we’re good, I think the kids know we’re good. We’ve not played the full 40 minutes in almost every game this year, to be honest with you. That’s what we’re trying to correct, and what we’re trying to get the players to really zero in on ... We’re not in a situation where things are bad. We’ve lost a couple of games, and they just need to play longer periods of time."

***Blaney on Kemba Walker's recent struggles:

"The only thing that Kemba seems to be doing is he’s passing up really good open jump shots, which he worked so hard on this summer. He’s coming right into the paint, and he’s pretty open. Now he’s taking one or two more dribbles in, and trying to create contact or trying to get to the rim. Quite honestly, it’s Kemba’s first year as a point guard. He really was not the point guard last year, he was someone that came in and gave us really good minutes pushing the ball. Now, he’s got to be a point guard where he’s got to make more and more decisions."

Walker, for his part, recognizes his struggles.

"I can’t get too deep in the paint. Sometimes I go a little too far, guys are collapsing on me and I don’t have enough room to pull up for a jump shot."

He also acknowledges that he has to be a better floor leader.

"It definitely has to be me. I’m the point guard, I’m the team leader. Of course Jerome and Gavin and Stanley have to step in and be leaders (also)."

***Blaney also noted that the team simply has to get Stanley Robinson the ball more often.

"It’s a priority all the time. It does sound like it’s easy. You also have to remember that, normally, the best or second-best defender is guarding him, and they’re not usually allowing him to do as many things as you would like. But we do have to get him the ball. I would like to see us get him the ball curling into the middle of the paint, where he’s so difficult to guard in that area."

***At first blush, it would seem the Red Storm would be the perfect antidote for UConn’s recent troubles. The Huskies have won eight straight against St. John’s, dating back to an overtime loss at Madison Square Garden in 2002.

But the Red Storm (12-5, 2-3) are an improved team from recent years. Still a tenacious defensive team under head coach Norm Roberts, they’ve got now got some offensive punch, led by talented junior forward D.J. Kennedy (15.4 points per game) and the recent return of oft-injured Anthony Mason, Jr., who is still trying to ease his way back into the rotation after returning three games ago.

"I think St. John’s has improved a great deal," said Blaney. "They’re playing exceptionally hard, they’ve always played good defense. And now they have some offensive answers – Kennedy, Horne, Burrell, and now Mason coming back, Hardy. And he’s playing 10 or 11 guys. They’re not slacking off the defense at all, they’re really coming at you hard. This will be a very, very tough game."

***Games which Jim Calhoun has missed or left early due to illness:

1. December 23, 1990 vs. Fairfield (HCC) W, 94-70 Chest-pain, flu-like symptoms
2. February 22, 1993 vs. Maine (HCC) W, 108-72 Food related
3. January 29, 1994 at Pittsburgh W, 88-67 pneumonia symptoms
4. February 1, 1994 at Syracuse L, 108-95 pneumonia symptoms
5. November 24, 1998 vs. Hartford (HCC) W, 95-58 intestinal virus
6. March 11, 1999 vs. UT-San Antonio W, 91-66 intestinal virus
7. January 3, 2000 vs. Sacred Heart (HCC) W, 83-56 stomach cramps
8. February 3, 2001 vs. Virginia Tech (GP) W, 85-72 light-headedness, flu-like symptoms
9. February 5, 2002 vs. Providence (HCC) W, 67-56 food related
10. February 5, 2003 at Virginia Tech L, 95-74 prostate surgery
11. February 8, 2003 at Providence W, 84-68 prostate surgery
12. February 10, 2003 vs. Syracuse (HCC) W, 75-61 prostate surgery
13. February 15, 2003 at Villanova L, 79-70 prostate surgery
14. February 19, 2003 vs. Rutgers (HCC) W, 87-70 prostate surgery
15. March 20, 2004 vs. DePaul (left and returned) W, 72-55 flu-like symptoms
16. January 16, 2006 at Syracuse W, 88-80 dehydration
17. January 13, 2007 at St. John’s (msg) (left and returned) W, 68-59 flu-like symptoms
18. January 8, 2008 vs. St. John’s (left game) W, 81-65 dehydration
19. January 12, 2008 at Georgetown (missed game) L, 72-69 dehydration
20. January 3, 2009 vs. Rutgers (GP) (left after halftime) W, 80-49 illness
21. March 19, 2009 vs. Chattanooga (missed game) W, 103-47

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