Sunday, March 20, 2011

It's a Wonderful Life for Jim Calhoun

A Jim Calhoun quote:

"No matter how this season ends up, it's going to end up as a wonderful season. I guarantee that, it will ... I've enjoyed being around these kids. It's been a fun year."

So when did Calhoun utter these words? Last week, after UConn's miracle run through the Big East tourney? Saturday night, after its win over Cincinnati that put the Huskies into the Sweet 16 later this week in Anaheim?

Neither. Calhoun made this statement back on Feb. 9, the day before UConn's game against St. John's and on the heels of two losses in its prior three games.

The Huskies would, of course, get blown out by the Red Storm at the Garden the following night, as well. But you really get the sense that Calhoun meant those words then just as much as he did on Saturday night when he said the following:

“This has been an incredible journey with these kids, and I would have said this had things turned the other way. We can’t wait to get out to California and keep playing and keep being with this group. This is such a special team for me, certainly.”

Really? Would Calhoun, one of sports’ most tenacious competitors, really still have felt this way if UConn had, say, lost to Georgetown in the second round of the Big East tournament, then been knocked out of the first weekend of the Big Dance?

Honestly, I believe so. Oh, he'd be a grump for a day or two, but upon reflection, he'd truly treasure everything this team has brought him.

Because this is an extremely close-knit bunch of kids who are likeable and fun to be around. They truly seem to enjoy each other’s company, none of the egos or petty jealousies that may have fueled last year’s bitterly disappointing season. As much publicity as Kemba Walker has rightfully earned, his teammates don’t appear to begrudge him at all and, in fact, speak of him in the glowing terms reserved for players they idolize – or even greater influences.

“We’re going to go as far as God lets us,” freshman guard Shabazz Napier said Saturday night.

“God and Kemba,” a reporter quipped.

Napier had to pause for a moment and smile before admitting, “There’s God … and Kemba’s nowhere near God.”

Tell that to a UConn fan. But we digress ...

It's clear that this group has helped Calhoun through another trying season. Last month, the program was punished by the NCAA for violations in the recruitment of Nate Miles. Calhoun was suspended for the first three Big East games of next season, a sanction he clearly disagreed with but eventually opted not to appeal. A few days later, Calhoun’s sister-in-law passed away. He missed a game while attending the funeral and talked about how there are “more important things in life” than basketball.

But watching this group enjoy each other’s company, as well as improve on the basketball court, seems to be therapeutic to Calhoun. There’s really not a bad story in the group: the emergence of Walker as perhaps the very best player in the nation and Jeremy Lamb as a star on the rise; the improved inside play and toughness of Alex Oriakhi, the boundless athleticism of Roscoe Smith and the enthusiasm and leadership-beyond-his years of Napier; the steady leadership of senior Donnell Beverly and the surprising recent contributions from a senior (Charles Okwandu) and a freshman (Tyler Olander).

And there don’t seem to be any malcontents in this bunch. Sure, Jamal Coombs-McDaniel may pout a bit after getting a tongue-lashing from Calhoun and riding the pine for a while. But a half hour later, he’s the first off the bench to mob walk-on Benjamin Stewart for scoring his first-ever basket, and the next night he’s in for Smith 14 seconds into the game and scoring 10 first-half points against the Bearcats.

Calhoun’s perspective on this season is enough to make one wonder whether he’s pondering retirement whenever this run ends. With most of the key players back next season, UConn could be strong again. But with Walker almost certainly heading to the NBA, and with blue-chip recruit Andre Drummond likely to opt for another year of prep school, the Huskies probably won't be national championship contenders.

Whether UConn’s season ends at the hands of San Diego State on Thursday in Anaheim, Calif., or two days later against – be still CBS’s beating hearts – Duke, or if the Huskies complete their miracle mission and reach Calhoun’s fourth Final Four or, somehow, capture his third national championship, would it all be enough on which to ride off into the sunset?

It certainly all bears watching. But one thing is certain: this team and this season was as special to Jim Calhoun back in the middling days of early February as it is right now.

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