Saturday, December 17, 2011

Blaney to Face Alma Mater ... Finally!


On Sunday, George Blaney will face Holy Cross, his alma mater and the school he coached for 22 seasons, for the first time since leaving the program in 1994 to take over the reins at Seton Hall.

Blaney, the Huskies’ associate head coach, said going up against the Crusaders will be uncomfortable.

“I'll try to blank out whose shirt it is we're playing against,” he told Gavin Keefe of the New London Day.

Of course, Blaney nearly got this out of the way four years ago. The Huskies could have faced Holy Cross in the second round of the 2k College Hoops Classic Benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer in November, 2007 at Gampel. However, according to then-Holy Cross coach Ralph Willard, Jim Calhoun strong-armed the Gazelle Group, the tournament organizers, into moving the Crusaders out of UConn’s bracket so that the Huskies wouldn’t have to face them.

“I was told by the Gazelle Group we had to be moved, it wasn’t a choice, because Connecticut was adamant about not playing us,” Willard told the Worcester Telegram & Gazette in September, 2007.

UConn, of course, had just come off a hugely disappointing 2006-07 season in which it failed to make a postseason tournament for the first time in some 20 years. The Huskies still had a sophomore-laden team, and the theory is that Calhoun didn’t want his young squad that needed some early-season confidence to go up against the Crusaders’ methodical, slow-down style. UConn would have played Holy Cross for the right to advance to the next round at Madison Square Garden, assuming both teams won their first-round games.

Instead, Buffalo agreed to replace Holy Cross in the bracket in exchange for UConn traveling up to Buffalo for a non-conference game the following season (which the Huskies did. Fun game – won by UConn, 68-64 – and fun trip).

Anyway, while Calhoun denied demanding that Holy Cross be switched, the Huskies took a brief P.R. hit. It is a bit unbecoming to think of mighty UConn being fearful of playing little ol’ Holy Cross – in Storrs, no less.

It wound up working out for the Huskies, who beat Morgan State (barely) then Buffalo to advance to the Garden, where they topped Gardner-Webb then lost to John Calipari, Derrick Rose and then No. 3 Memphis.

Willard is no longer at Holy Cross, replaced by two years ago by Milian Brown. This year’s Crusaders are 4-6, with a blowout win over Boston College and close losses to Harvard, Providence and Columbia. They are led by 6-foot-1 senior guard Devin Brown (14.7 ppg) and 6-3 junior R.J. Evans of Salem and Norwich Free Academy.

“He’s a really well-built kid, 6-3 ½, 6-4, (and) he can go,” said Calhoun. “He’s a really good straight-line player, a good athlete. They’re certainly improved over what they have been.”

Still, the ninth-ranked Huskies certainly don’t fear hosting Holy Cross as much as they did four years ago.

*** Incidentally, while this will be the 64th meeting between the two programs, it’s just first time since Feb. 4, 1988, when the Huskies eked out an 82-81 win in Worcester behind 23 points from Phil Gamble and 21 from Cliff Robinson. Blaney went 11-12 against Calhoun in his 22 seasons at Holy Cross – 3-2 while Calhoun was at Northeastern and 8-10 with Calhoun at UConn.

Blaney was Holy Cross's head coach from 1972-94, compililng 357 wins, three NCAA tourney berths and five trips to the NIT.

Blaney had been an All-New England standout at Holy Cross, scoring 1,012 career points and leading the Crusaders to consecutive 20-win seasons before graduating in 1961.

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