Thursday, March 31, 2011

Tale of the Tape: Cal vs. Cal ...

... or should I say, The Hooner vs. Johnny Clam Chowder? Nah, Cal vs. Cal works fine. Heck, John Calipari is referred to rather chummily in Kentucky's media notes as Cal, so why can't we?

As we blogged about a few days ago, these two guys don't like each other much. Perhaps their frosty relationship is best described in this piece on lostletterman.com, which explains how Calhoun used to dub him "Johnny Clam Chowder" in an attempt to mock Calipari as an outsider (from Pittsburgh) trying to tell people what's good for New England basketball.

Good stuff there. And here's how Calipari responds to my question on how he'd characterize his current relationship with Jim Calhoun:



Now, let's see how the two coaches stack up, head-to-head, in various different categories.

Head-to-head: Calhoun 3, Calipari 2

Career victories: Calhoun 853, Calipari 509

Career winning pct.: Calhoun .699 (853-367), Calipari .771 (509-151)

Current players on NBA opening day rosters: Calhoun 11 (Allen, Hamilton, Butler, Okafor, Gordon, Villanueva, Gay, Armstrong, Thabeet, Price, Adrien; Calipari 12 (Bledsoe, Camby, Carney, Cousins, Dorsey, Douglas-Roberts, Evans, Orton, Patterson, Rose, Wall, Williams)

Active coaching tree (former assistants now head coaches): Calhoun 6 (Dickenman, Hobbs, Jarvis, Moore, Pikiell, Woodward), Calipari 6 (Barbee, Flint, Kellogg, Martin, Pastner, Roccaforte)

30-win seasons: Calhoun 8, Calipari 7

NCAA tournament wins: Calhoun 47, Calipari 32

National championships: Calhoun 2, Calipari 0

Final Fours: Calhoun 4, Calipari 3

Final Fours vacated by NCAA committee on infractions: Calhoun 0, Calipari 2

Programs brought to Final Four: Calhoun 1, Calipari 3

Sweet 16's: Calhoun 13, Calipari 8

Elite 8's: Calhoun 9, Calipari 6

NIT championships: Calhoun 1, Calipari 1

Background: Boston Irish, Pittsburgh Italian. Let's call this one a draw.

NBA experience: Claims he was once final cut in Celtics camp, 2 1/2 messy years as head coach of Nets. Let's call this one a draw, too.

Infamous quotes: "I f@$&ed up" or "Not one dime back" or countless others vs. calling a New Jersey reporter a "Mexican idiot."

Scandal: Nate Miles recruiting mess vs. Marcus Camby's pay-for-play or Derrick Rose cheating on SATs

Angering other coaches: Unfairly blaming Mick Cronin for not voting Kemba Walker first team all-Big East vs. John Chaney threatening to kill him.

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What if Knight Had Chosen UConn, Instead?

Dave Beckerman tried.

Not in a pushy way -- he knows Brandon Knight already has dozens of hangers-on pushing and pulling him one way or another, so he'd never impose anything on him. But Beckerman, the New Haven native and longtime UConn fan who coached Knight at Pine Crest School in Boca Raton, Fla., tried in his own way to persuade Knight to choose Jim Calhoun and UConn over John Calipari and Kentucky.

Didn't work. Knight, was we all know, opted for Lexington last April in a press conference at Pine Crest School that I attended (I was on vacation in Florida at the time).

Why did Knight go Blue? Beckerman thinks there were various reasons.

"The (Jasper) Howard issue, the issue of health with Jim Calhoun, his contract, the (NCAA) investigation. A lot of things added up, and at the end of the day may have even been used against UConn, which I’m not sure of.”

He also noted that Knight had relatives who lived in the Lexington area.

On Thursday, Knight talked about his decision to choose UK over UConn. "It was a tough decision, but Kentucky was my final choice. I liked UConn, but I just felt better off going to Kentucky," adding that Beckerman informed him about UConn, but "really just wanted the best for me.”

He also noted that Calipari's success with one-and-done point guards like Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans and John Wall also played a role.

“It definitely weighed in my decision, just knowing that a lot of other guards that were pretty good in high school trusted Coach Cal to get them to the next level, and to help them get better individually. Also the fact that other players around those people got a lot better.”

Knight’s decision was crushing to UConn fans at the time. Around the same time, the program was being shunned by other top recruits (Josh Shelby, Corey Joseph and Doron Lamb, who’s also now a freshman guard at UK), and Knight’s nix seemed to hint that Calhoun was slipping on the recruiting trail.

Rather, it may have been a blessing in disguise. Had Knight committed to UConn, Shabazz Napier almost certainly wouldn’t have come to Storrs (at least for this season; Napier said he may have opted for another year at prep school had Knight become a Husky).



And though Jeremy Lamb had already committed to the Huskies, it’s doubtful he would have emerged as the dynamic, versatile scorer he’s become over the past couple of months.

It’s also hard to envision how Walker and Knight would have shared the same backcourt, even if both have proven quite adept at playing off the ball.

Still, Beckerman, who founded the former New Haven-based Starter sports apparel line and was the head coach at Hamden Hall for a few years, can’t help thinking of how life would have been different for Knight in Storrs.

“I think he clearly would have been a much more offensive threat,” Beckerman said. “I don’t know if that would have taken away from Kemba in terms of offense, and I don’t know if Kemba cares about that. Calipari is trying to mold him into a pass-first,shoot-second point guard. Jim Calhoun lets the natural instincts come out in a player. That’s his formula for success.”

Knight averaged 17.3 points and 4.2 assists per game as a Wildcat freshman. He’s reached double figures in all but three of UK’s 37 games, but has really risen to prominence in the NCAA tournament. Knight’s bank shot with two seconds left against Princeton (his only two points of the game) kept the Wildcats from an embarrassing first-round loss. And his jumper with 5.4 seconds left against Ohio State moved the Wildcats into the Elite Eight, where they beat North Carolina behind Knight’s game-high 22 points.

Knight’s Kemba-like ability in the clutch is nothing new to Beckerman, who recalled a regional championship game in Knight’s junior season. Pine Crest was losing, one of its best players had just fouled out and everyone on the bench – including Beckerman – had their heads down.

During a timeout, Knight turned to Beckerman and asked, “Coach, what time is practice tomorrow?” He then proceeded to go out and hit three 3-pointers and six straight free throws over the next three minutes, propelling Pine Crest into the state finals with a 52-point effort.

Now Beckerman, who winters in Boca Raton while coaching Pine Crest but spends his summers in Guilford, will be torn while watching the Final Four. He’ll root for Knight to have a good game, but root for UConn to win.

And deep down, he’ll still wonder what it would have been like had Brandon Knight become a Husky.

“It would have been great for UConn,” Beckerman said, “and, candidly, I think it would have been great for Brandon.”

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Final Four by Numbers


Greetings from Reliant Stadium, a giant monolith right next door to the old Astrodome. Not much else in this vast city is right next door to each other, but these two structures are.

We'll have some notes 'n quotes from UConn and Kentucky's interview sessions later this afternoon. For now, here are some relevant numbers surrounding this year's Final Four:

2,900: The championship game will be the 2,900th all-time game in the NCAA tourney.

68: Jim Calhoun's age.

68: Combined age of Butler's Brad Stevens and VCU's Shaka Smart.

66: Age of Kansas's Phog Allen when he won the NCAA title in 1952. Calhoun would surpass him as the oldest if Huskies win it all.

41: Number of games UConn (or VCU) will have played if either reaches the national finals, most by any team since Oregon played 45 in 1945.

32: Age of Bob Knight when he took Indiana to 1973 Final Four -- youngest of any coach born before 1972 (Stevens and Smart are second and third).

26: Accumulated seeds of this year's Final Four, most ever. Previous high was 22 in 2000 (No. 1 Michigan State, No. 5 Florida, No. 8 North Carolina, No. 8 Wisconsin).

14: Final Four appearances by Kentucky.

7: National championships for Kentucky, second only to UCLA.

4: Final Four appearances by UConn and Jim Calhoun.

3: Final Four appearances by John Calipari, with three different teams.

2: Final Four appearances by Butler; national titles for UConn.

1: "Official" Final Four appearances by Calipari. His first two were vacated by the NCAA.

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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Geno on Jim, UConn men

The Register's Jim Fuller sent these quotes from Geno Auriemma, talking about the UConn men's success shortly after the Husky women advanced to the Final Four with a rout of Duke:

"I don't think anybody going into the season thought that this team could be better than last year's team given who they graduated and how many young guys they brought in but I was walking through the gym one day in September and it may even have been in the summer when everybody was up for summer school, I remember walking through the gym and I saw them playing pickup. I remember saying to Kemba (Walker) 'I haven't this much noise or seen this kind of intensity in these pickup games in maybe three or four years. Some how, some way you guys manage to keep this up, you guys are going to be a lot of fun to watch. ' You could just see that there was something there. I think Jim (Calhoun), he is like a lot of coaches, when you get a team that every day when you see them you sense something different about them, something special about them, I think it kind of motivates you to coach with even more passion than you usually do. Not to say we don't (in other years) but he has brought out the best in this team and this team has brought out the best in him. That is usually what happens when stories like this kind of evolve."

And here's what he had to say about Kemba Walker and Maya Moore:

"Walker and Moore are) two of the best players in America and two of the best players in college basketball, two of the most exciting players. One is going to be in Houston and one is going to be in Indianapolis and they both play at the University of Connecticut and that is something for all of us to be proud of."

Some nice words from Geno.

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Time to Make the Donuts ...

You know you're at the airport early when you've got to wait a half-hour before any Southwest agents arrive and Dunkin' Donuts isn't open yet.

Heading out to Houston this morning. Didn't realize it until recently that the Red Sox will be in town tonight, too, to face the Astros at Minute Maid Park in their final spring training game. Josh Beckett on the bump, for those UConn/Red Sox fans heading to Houston early.

Anyway, here's my piece from today's Register on Shabazz Napier, who has helped make Kemba Walker's life easier this season. Just ask Shabazz.

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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Huskies Meet the Media ... Again

Gotta admit, when we walked out of Gampel Pavilion on March 7, the day before the Big East tournament, I figured the only way I'd be back in the arena before summertime was if UConn had lost to DePaul in its BET opener and somehow had been relegated to the NIT. (And yes, I know, that wasn't going to happen).

Anyway, we were back this afternoon as the Huskies met with the media for a good 2 1/2 hours before their practice. They'll fly out tomorrow and land at Houston's Hobby Airport around 7 p.m. local time.

Here are some notes 'n quotes from earlier today:

KEMBA WALKER:

On recalling the first time he walked into Gampel as a recruit and saw the Huskies' "Wall of Fame" in the hallway.


"I told myself, ‘One day I want to be on that wall.’ And one day I will be on that wall.”

Will he even bother to watch the game tape of UConn's win over a very different Kentucky team in the Maui Invitational in November?

"Of course. We’ll definitely look at some of that. I played fairly well that game, so I’ll see what I did, what I was able to do against those guys. I’m pretty sure they’ll watch film of that game, also, and make some corrections."

On if he ever thinks about how things would be different at UConn had Brandon Knight and Doron Lamb decided to become Huskies, rather than Wildcats:

“No. Honestly, I definitely would have loved to have those two guys, but I’m fine with the guys I have, honestly. It really didn’t matter, to tell you the truth. I’m glad we got the guys we got. I don’t know how coachable those guys are – I’m not saying they’re not, but I don’t know. But the guys we have are very coachable, they listen to me, they listen to Donnell, and they always come willing to learn new things. I’m fine with the guys we have."

On the UConn women:

"Best team in the country, in my opinion. They work extremely hard, every day. There was a point where they didn’t lose, until they lost to Stanford, but you would have thought they had lost 80 games in a row the way they practice every day.

For us to have two teams in (the Final Four) again would be pretty impressive. Hopefully, we can both bring it back home."

On his favorite current course, Racism in Sports:

"We're reading a book right now called '$40 Million Slaves' by William C. Rhoden. It talks a lot about basketball players, LeBron James, the recruiting process -- a lot of different things over the years. It's a pretty good book. It's helping me realize the world I'm probably going to get into."

He’s definitely been pretty impressive to watch this tournament. You could just see the development he had throughout this season. He’s been a great leader for his team. Something like me, a little bit, because you can tell he wants to take the last shot. When he takes it, he’s taking it to make it, and that’s what he’s been doing so far.

ALEX ORIAKHI:

On playing against fellow Boston-area native Shabazz Napier back in the day:

"I remember seeing him in AAU tournaments in 6th, 7th grade. I've known since 8th, 9th grade. I played against him in some little tournament in Boston. He killed us, we lost. But he got every call. He got every call!"


GEORGE BLANEY
on John Calipari:

"You always had to ask coaches to do things for charities and different coaching events. You’d be surprised about who does things and who doesn’t do things. John would always do what we asked him to do."

JIM CALHOUN

On not getting Knight or Doron Lamb:

"I'm very happy with the guys we got. We didn't get Brandon Knight and Doron Lamb. Well, we got Jeremy Lamb, who's been real special already but is going to be very special, and we got Shabazz. he reminds me of that every day, actually."

On the Final Four two years ago in Detroit:

"It wasn't typical of a Final Four. When we were in San Antonio, we were riding boats on the canal. When we were in St. Petersburg, we went to see Sammy Sosa and the Cubs play. In Detroit, we went from the gym to the hotel. I think it's going to be a little different (in Houston), and that's no knock on Detroit whatsoever ... I’m for warm weather, it has nothing to do with Detroit. I wouldn’t want it in Hartford. We need warm weather – bad."

On if he's thought about perhaps riding off into the sunset after this run:

"If we win the national championship, standing at the podium would be a bad time to make any decision. And if things don’t go well, it would be a lousy time to make a decision. I mean, this has been fun."

JAMAL COOMBS-MCDANIEL


Said he had an MRI on his left knee yesterday that revealed "ligament issues." He may need surgery once the season is over, but until then he'll keep playing through the pain.


SHABAZZ NAPIER


On how Kentucky is different now than it was in Maui:

“Brandon Knight is a better point guard, Doron Lamb is a better shooter now. He knows his spots, where to shoot at. We’ve got to watch him, especially on transition, seeing that his favorite spot’s the corner. Harralson is tough now, you see how well he played against Jared Sullinger. Liggins, the veteran guys, they’re all stepping up now. It’s more of a team. Usually, before, it was just the freshmen doing something, and the older guys letting them do it. Now, it’s all of them combined, and that’s dangerous for us. Now, if you try to stop one person, they have four others, unlike (how) it was in Maui."

"We’re leaving that game behind us. I can tell you right now, it’s not going to be a 17-point game. We’re not going to win by 17, and hopefully we don’t lose by 17. It’s going to be a hard-fought game."

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Monday, March 28, 2011

Calhoun, Calipari Still Not Fond of Each Other

Remember a few years ago, when UConn played Memphis in a preseason NIT game at the Garden and Jim Calhoun and John Calipari tried to pretend everything was cool between the two of them?

Didn't buy it then? Me neither. And don't buy whatever the two coaches say over the next week, either. They still don't like each other.

No further proof needed than this bit from a good Sports Illustrated story on Calipari a few weeks ago:

If the Wildcats' spring ends early, there will be matchups Calipari won't watch. There are rivals he can't abid, and vice versa; even without being asked he gives you a list: Pitino, Pearl, Connecticut's Jim Calhoun.

No worries, John. Guaranteed the feeling is mutual.

Here's a little piece I did today on Kemba Walker's leadership skills. Plenty more coming over the next week.

Here's a few snippets from today's conference call with the coaches from the Final Four teams:

JIM CALHOUN

On the three other coaches in this year's Final Four:

"My two sons, and my problem child."

On what he takes from UConn's win over Kentucky for the Maui Invitational title back in late November:

"Nothing, absolutely nothing. Except I remember the last four minutes of the first half. It was not any indication of what they've become, or what we went through. I don't think that game means absolutely anything."

On his public perception:

"There's no way that you're going to please everybody. If I please my God, my family, that's important to me. And if I please my players and my university, then I'm fine ... What I'm sometimes perceived as, I don't recognize that person. YOu get stuck with something, and that becomes you."

On losing out on recruits Brandon Knight and Doron Lamb, both now at Kentucky:

"Yes, there was a great deal of disappointment. At one time, we were recruiting Brandon Jennings ... loved the place and wanted to come here. We determined Brandon Jennings hadn't made his mind up, and we went after a kid we thought we could get. A kid named Kemba Walker.

When we got Shabazz (Napier) and Jeremy Lamb, we thought we got two pretty good players.

You get a lot more no's than yeses.

It's kind of ironic that we're playing against two kids we really went hard after.

If I spent all my time on the kids we lost, I guess we would have won a lot of championships. I'm much more interested in the kids we get. Kemba and Shabazz: how have they worked together? Shabazz has been sensational, has taken a lot of pressure off Kemba this year and allowed him to play (off the ball)."

On if he's thought of his place in the game if he wins a third national championship:

"Any legacy stuff, I can look at later. I just can't wait to get this team to the Final Four."

JOHN CALIPARI:

On key to Jim Calhoun's success over the years:

"I think he's a battler, he holds the bar high, doesn't accept anythying but their best ... and he has talented players. He got talented players to buy in, and has done a great job throughout his whole career ... He is as good as they get."

On growing and improving as a coach:

"Let me explain to all who are listening: I do not have this figured out."

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Sunday, March 27, 2011

UConn-UK Around 9 p.m. Saturday

UConn's Final Four but with John Calipari, Brandon Knight and Kentucky should start around 9 p.m. on Saturday.

The VCU-Butler game starts at 6:09 p.m., with UConn-Kentucky to follow 40 minutes after that game's conclusion.

Jim Nantz, Clark Kellogg and Steve Kerr call the games along with Tracy Wolfson serving as reporter.

The Huskies will head to Houston after practice Wednesday.

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Did Huskies' Run Start at Husky Run?

Maybe I made too much of this at the time and maybe I still am today.

Maybe not.

But as I wrote the time, Kemba Walker's small but unique gesture at the Husky Run on Oct. 13 may have given us an early glimpse of what a special leader -- and person -- he would be this season.

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Calhoun Cuts Down Nets, Disses Barkley

Jim Calhoun made a not-so thinly-veiled reference to Charles Barkley in his postgame presser:

"The Big Least," Calhoun said. "(To) the large gentleman that called us that, the 9th place team in the 'Big Least' is now in the Final Four."

How will the Round Mound rebound from that one?

And here's Calhoun doing something he's pretty used to doing:

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Saturday, March 26, 2011

Rocketing to Houston

Running out of adjectives here to describe UConn's incredible run to the Final Four. Let's let Jim Calhoun try:

“I don’t know where it stands in NCAA postseason play, but it’s got to stand somewhere, these nine games, because I’ve never seen a team do what these kids have done.”

He later added:

"Emeka Okafor is in our locker room right now, and his team was a powerful, older team that rolled through. We had one tough game, against Duke, but won a national championship and that was special, and the first one (1999) was obviously very special.

“But this – our march in the past nine games, I haven’t experienced anything like this and the resiliency we’ve had.”

Ah yes, Okafor. He was in town, with his New Orleans Hornets playing the Lakers on Sunday night, and he is thoroughly impressed with this year's UConn team.

“They’re a strong, tough group who doesn’t understand the definition of ‘can’t,’” he said. “‘Can’t’ is not in their vocabulary. From the five games in the Big East to coming out here, basically on a road game against San Diego (State) and here, and getting the job done.”

One other interesting tidbit: Kemba Walker and Donnell Beverly are now the only UConn players ever to advance to two Final Four. It is, of course, the Huskies' fourth trip to the Final Four and second in three years.

We'll have some video of Emeka Okafor talking UConn and Jim Calhoun cutting down the nets a little later. For now, here is the game story and notebook from tonight's 65-63 UConn victory.

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Live Pregame Chat at 6 Tonight

I'll be doing a live chat from courtside tonight at 6 p.m., joined by UConn radio man Joe D'Ambrosio. Start submitting questions at 5:30 p.m., or any time on Twitter at #NHRUConn.

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Looking at Tomorrow's Game

Here's my advance story for Saturday's Elite 8 bout between UConn and Arizona.

Here's the gameday preview of Saturday's game at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif.

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Friday, March 25, 2011

Coombs: From Doghouse to 'Junkyard Dog'


For the first time in his career, Jamal Coombs-McDaniel got the podium treatment today. "Coombsie", as his coach often calls him, joined Jim Calhoun, Kemba Walker, Alex Oriakhi, Roscoe Smith and Jeremy Lamb at the podium for a presser before breaking off into seperate interview sessions.

Coombs-McDaniel didn't get any questions, but hey, he made the podium.

I caught up with the UConn sophomore later to ask him about his trying season. He admitted he seriously considered a transfter back in early January, but ultimately is glad he went through what he went through. Yeah, I know, another "disgruntled kid almost transfers" story. But in this case, I think Coombs-McDaniel was pretty serious.

Anyway, here's the story.

And here's a few additional quotes from Coombs-McDaniel and Alex Oriakhi that didn't make the story:

Coombs-McDaniel on considering a tranfer: “To be honest, yeah. I was thinking of it, when I wasn’t getting the playing time I thought I deserved. The assistant coaches just kept saying, ‘Stay with it, stay with it,’ knowing there’s going to be my day."

On Jim Calhoun: “He knows he’s a touch coach to play for. But overall, it’s been fun.”

On Calhoun referring to him as a "junkyard dog": “I’ve never been called that before, that was cool. I just try to do a little bit of everything.”

Oriakhi, on Coombs-McDaniel's frustrations: “When he didn’t agree with coming out, he would argue. I would tell him, ‘You’re fighting a losing battle. Coach is always right, like it or not.' That’s something he’s finally figured out. Now, when coach takes him out, he’s clapping, being a team player, and he goes right back in.”

On Calhoun: “You don’t argue with Coach, because you’re never going to win that battle.”

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Raising Arizona

Some things to know about the Arizona Wildcats:

*** Derrick Williams is an absolute beat and promises to be an extremely match-up for UConn. So why don’t we hear more about him? Plain and simple, East Coast media bias. If he played in the Big East, ACC or even the Big 10, his 32-point, 13-rebound domination of Duke Thursday night would have hardly come as a surprise. As it is, many sports fans on the East Coast are probably just getting to know him.

*** For all that Williams does well – and there’s a lot – getting to the foul line is one of his best assets. Williams led the nation in free throw attempts this season with 319, and he hit 238 of them for a 74.6 percentage.

“It’s just being aggressive, really," Williams said. "I try to get to the free throw line to take a break, really. Whenever I get to the free throw line, it gives our whole team a break, and we get right back to it. Hopefully, I knock down two free throws and it’s positive.”

*** Alex Oriakhi said he'll draw the early assignment on Williams, though the Huskies are hoping Williams fell in love with the 3-pointer (he hit five vs. Duke) and stays out on the perimeter most of the game.

“I’ve seen him out on the wing. He looks like a 3 to me,” Oriakhi said. “I’m definitely going to have my hands full, especially out on the perimeter. But if he’s able to go by me, Roscoe (Smith) said, ‘I’ve got your help defense.’ Me and Roscoe both help each other out when our man is able to go by us.”

*** The Wildcats looked good – real good … as in, unstoppable good – in Thursday’s 93-77 whitewash of Duke. But it hasn’t all been rosy for the Wildcats this season. They had one of the worst losses I’ve seen this season back on Feb. 26 when UCLA trounced them, 71-49. It was an embarrassing performance by the ‘Cats, their second loss in a row. They have, of course, won seven of eight since then and may just be peaking at exactly the right time.

Sound a little like a team we know?

*** Arizona has lost its last two regional finals (in 2003 to Kansas and in 2005 to Illinois). The ‘Cats are also 0-2 in regional finals here at the Honda Center (Kansas in ’03 and Utah in 1998).

*** Sean Miller is one of the few college coaches whom Jim Calhoun also coached against as a player. Neill Ostrout’s crack research revealed that Seton Hall’s Kevin Willard is another. We’re trying to think of some more, but coming up blank. There almost have to be a few others. Can anyone think of any?

*** ‘Zona can shoot. It hit 40.3 percent of its 3-pointers this season and eclipsed 60 percent from beyond the arc five times. It’s hit 10 or more treys a dozen times this season. The Wildcats also hold opponents to 29.3 percent shooting on triples.

*** Every four-year player at Arizona since 1985 has played in at least one Sweet 16 in his career in Tucson. Pretty impressive.

And a tale of the tape between the Huskies and Wildcats:

NCAA titles: UConn 2, Arizona 1

Final Fours: UConn 3, Arizona 4

Elite Eights: UConn 10, Arizona 9

NCAA tourney appearances: UConn 30 (one has been vacated), Arizona 27 (two have been vacated)

Current players in the NBA: UConn 11, Arizona 10.

Most NBA draft choices since 1989: UConn 24, Arizona 31

Best pro ever: Ray Allen or Sean Elliott (or maybe Gilbert Arenas?). Elliott had a nice, long career and won an NBA title with the Spurs, but Allen is a Hall of Famer.

Better Kahlid: El-Amin or Reeves? Reeves averaged 24.2 points per game as a senior in 1993-94, but El-Amin engineered the Huskies' first national title in '99.

All-time series: UConn, 4-0. The two teams have never met in the NCAA tournament -- until Saturday night.

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How Does This UConn Run Rank with Others?

I grew up in Rhode Island rooting for Providence College and URI (sorta like rooting for both the Yankees and Mets, I suppose, but possible), so my knowledge of UConn basketball history was only cursory when I took over the beat four years ago. Sure, I knew of the Huskies' accomplishments and followed them as they happened as a fan of college basketball, but in no way can I pretend to have detailed knowledge of Husky history pre-2007.

Last night, I asked a couple of fellow scribes -- one of whom has been on the beat since there were just 13 colonies -- if this remarkable UConn run to the Elite 8 compares with the Impossible Dream team of 1990.

Not even close, I was told. That run came completely out of nowhere, took the entire state by surprise and took everybody on a magical ride.

Fair enough, but is that any different from this season? I mean, who saw this coming? Who even saw the Huskies making the NCAA tournament back in October? And even after their great run in Maui, who saw UConn doing much of anything in the Big East and NCAA tournaments after their 9-9 conference season? Don't lie.

I suppose the main difference is the fact that this year, as opposed to 1990, at least the program has "been there, done that" before. Heck, the Huskies were in the Final Four just two seasons ago. Still, it's hard to believe this run is much more out of the blue than 1990.

Phil Chardis of the J-I compares this run more favorably to 2002, when, behind Caron Butler's incredible play, the Huskies reached the Elite 8 before bowing to eventual champion Maryland.

I'd like to know from you: How does this UConn run rank with others in the program's past? Please feel free to leave comments below.

Elswhere:

Here's my notebook off last night's game, leading with San Diego State's two technical fouls that really hurt the Aztecs.

And here's a chance for you to rate the different aspects of the game for UConn in its Sweet 16 victory.

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Game Story of UConn's Sweet 16 Win (w/video)

Here's my game story of the Huskies' 74-67 win over San Diego State on Thursday.

And here's Jeremy Lamb talking about his huge plays down the stretch:

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UConn-Arizona on Saturday at 7:05 p.m. EST

Kemba vs. Derrick Williams on Saturday at 7:05. Yeah, I was looking forward to UConn-Duke, but it will be fun to watch these two great players try to get their respective teams into the Final Four.

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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Shabazz: 'They Thought They Were Fab Five' (w/video)

San Diego State is coached by Steve Fisher, former ringmaster of the famed Michigan “Fab Five” of the early 1990s.

According to Shabazz Napier, the Aztecs apparently had some of Chris Webber, Jalen Rose & Co.’s brashness and cockiness in Thursday’s West regional semifinal bout.

“They thought they were the Fab Five out there,” Napier said. “We don’t talk much, we just go out there and play.”

The Aztecs’ chippiness hurt them, too. Just over four minutes into the game their best player, sophomore forward Kawhi Leonard, picked up a technical foul for jawing with UConn forward Alex Oriakhi. Leonard had just been called for a foul on Oriakhi away from the ball and continued jawing with him until referee Patrick Adams hit him with the ‘T.’

“I set a pick for Jeremy (Lamb), and he tried to run me over me,” Oriakhi explained. “I told him, ‘Calm down,’ and he just kept talking. He was able to get a technical, and that’s exactly what I wanted. I wanted to get into his head a little bit, have him get a technical.”



What did Leonard say to Oriakhi?

"It was personal," Leonard said.

With two quick fouls Leonard, who averaged a team-best 15.6 points per game and had four points and three rebounds in the first four minutes, went to the bench. He returned about four minutes later, and though the Aztecs still led when he came back, his foul trouble throughout the game limited Leonard to 29 minutes.

“He’s a good player,” said Oriakhi. “For us to have him on the bench with foul trouble, it helps us out.”

Later, Jamaal Franklin was hit with a ‘T’ after bumping into Kemba Walker and sending him to the ground as Walker made his way to the huddle during a timeout. Replays seemed to indicate Walker did a bit of flopping, but he disagreed.

“The contact was definitely enough to go down,” Walker said. “That’s why I was able to get the free throws.”

Walker’s freebies cut UConn’s deficit in half to two (53-51) with 9:19 to play.

Partisan Crowd
As expected, the crowd was hugely pro-San Diego State, which sits just 90 miles south of the Honda Center.

“It definitely helped them,” Napier said. “The beginning of the second half, I was like, ‘We’re going to beat them, they look dead.’ I just forgot they had the home-court advantage. As soon as they got that boost from their fans … that was a great advantage for him. But we have great players in Kemba and Jeremy, and they just took over at the end.”

If the overwhelmingly pro-San Diego State crowd wasn’t enough to fuel the UConn men’s basketball team’s “us-vs.-the-world” mentality Thursday night, a perceived lack of national respect may have done the trick.

In a Tweet a few hours before the Huskies’ West regional semifinal bout with the Aztecs, sophomore forward Alex Oriakhi noted: “ESPN claims UConn is ‘overachieving’ … sorry for winning.”

With apologies to Charlie Sheen, “winning” is all the Huskies seem to do these days.

Odds and Ends

*** Charles Okwandu left the game for a while and had to get two stitches to his lower lip. He returned later, but contributed no points or rebounds in nine minutes.

*** Walker's 36 were his most ever in an NCAA tourney game and his 11th 30-point or more effort of this season. He and Lamb combined for 81.1 percent of UConn's scoring.

Lamb's 24 matched his career high (Jan. 24 at Marquette).

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So Close to History


Here at the Honda Center, and didn't realize how close we were to a momentous occasion in Boston Red Sox history.

Dave Henderson's season-saving home run in the 1986 playoffs, at the Big A right down the road? Nope. The Sox' two wins at the Big A in the 2004 playoffs, en route to their first World Series title in 86 years? Not that, either.

We're told by a local scribe that Fritz's, a gentlemen's club right up the street, is the place where Wade Boggs first met the legendary Margo Adams. Now that's some history. The White House, Washington Monument, Smithsonian, etc. last week in Washington, D.C. pales in comparison.

UConn Stories, Videos from Today's Register

I know this story has been written before and probably isn't new to UConn fans. But with Jeremy Lamb emerging as a bona fide star and the Huskies in the Sweet 16 (not to mention Virginia Commonwealth's surprise run to the Sweet 16), now is as good a time as any for the story of how VCU's Rolando Lamb, Jeremy's dad, beat Jim Calhoun's Northeastern team with a buzzer-beater back in the 1984 NCAA tourney. Note the YouTube video of Rolando's shot within the story. And notice a young Glen Miller, a guard at Northeastern at the time, distraught on the sidelines.

Also from today's Register, here's the advance for tonight's 7:15 p.m. game, noting that San Diego State could have a decided homecourt advantage (and with video of the Huskies at yesterday's open practice).

Here's my notebook, which focuses on the relationship between Jim Calhoun and Steve Fisher, who have never faced each other on the hardwood.

And finally, here's today's gameday for the game tonight. I'm looking for a relatively low-scoring game, and wondering how the Aztecs try to contain Kemba Walker. Not sure if anyone can right now.

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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Bowling (and Raining) in Anaheim


At UConn's press conference today, the moderator ID'd me as "the guy in the pink shirt" before my question to Alex Oriakhi. Kemba Walker found it hilarious, as did my fellow writers, who haven't let me forget about it yet (and probably never will).

For the record, the shirt is really salmon-colored, buddy. But I digress ...

These open practices are really just a formality, a bunch of shooting drills, etc. Here's some video of today's open practice, with Jim Calhoun chatting up Bill Raftery and the Huskies getting in some dunks and drills:



The Huskies held a “real” practice earlier today at 9:15 at Cal State-Fullerton. UConn had also practiced there on Tuesday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Afterwards, the team went out bowling. Inside sources say that Niels “Twinkletoes” Giffey is the team’s best keggler, followed closely by walk-on Kyle Bailey.

While the media was conducting interviews in the locker room, Roscoe Smith had us all laughing with his impression of Jeremy Lamb. Smith tucked his head inside his t-shirt and put an apple where his head should be. Translation: Lamb has a small head. Maybe you had to be there, but it was pretty funny. Wish I’d had my FlipCam rolling at the time.

Oh, and it's raining in Anaheim, as anyone who's not here probably takes great glee in. Though it is better than snow.

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Tale of the Tape: Calhoun-Fisher

Jim Calhoun and Steve Fisher have combined for three nationial championships and six trips to the Final Four. Add Duke's Mike Krzyezewski and you've got quite a trio of accomplished coaches and combined national titles (seven) in the Honda Center these next few days. Too bad Lute Olson isn't still coaching Arizona.

However, one of the more surprising stats surrounding Thursday's UConn-San Diego State Sweet 16 bout is that, despite all their respective accomplishments, Calhoun and Fisher have never faced each other on the hardwood. Figured somewhere along the line they would have met, but nope, not 'til Thursday night.

Here's a quick tale of the tape between the two head coaches:

National championships: Calhoun 2, Fisher 1.

Trips to national championship game: Fisher 3, Calhoun 2.

Final Four appearances: Fisher 3, Calhoun 3

Trips to the Elite Eight: Calhoun 8, Fisher 4.

Trips to the Sweet Sixteen: Calhoun 13, Fisher 5.

NCAA tournament appearances: Calhoun 17, Fisher 11

NCAA tournament record: Calhoun 42-13, Fisher 22-9

Career victories: Calhoun 851 (39 seasons), Fisher 416 (20 seasons)

Age: Calhoun 68, Fisher 66 (tomorrow)

Games it took to win first NCAA title: Calhoun 809, Fisher 6

Most famous team: Calhoun -- 1999 or 2004 national champs, 1990 Impossible Dream team; Fisher -- Fab Five.

Scandal: Calhoun -- Recruitment of Nate Miles; Fisher -- Ed Martin paying players at Michigan.

Duke moment: Beat Blue Devils in 1999 national title game, 2004 Final Four; lost to Blue Devils in 1992 national title game, players later labeled Duke's black players as "Uncle Toms."

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Live Chat Tonight at 7

Please feel free to join me for a live chat on UConn basketball tonight at 7 from the Honda Center in Anaheim. Chat will begin shortly after UConn and San Diego State finish their open practices and press conferences.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

White on Walker?


Greetings from Anaheim, home of Angels, Ducks and Disneyland. This is the second time I’ve been out here covering a sporting event. The first time was the 2004 AL Division Series between the Angels and Red Sox. That wound up working out pretty well for the team I was covering.

The Los Angeles Huskies of Anaheim got here last night, but I just got to the media hotel a short time ago after spending about seven hours planes – six hours to Las Vegas, an hour to Orange County. A little tired, but we’ll be back in the groove tomorrow when the Huskies and San Diego State have their open practices and press conferences (starting at noon local time and ending around 3 p.m. – or 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. EST). I’ll be doing a live chat from the Honda Center at 7 p.m. EST, about an hour after San Diego State’s practice is over.

One thing that will be interesting to see is how the Aztecs choose to guard Kemba Walker, and if it compares to how they guarded the player most synonymous with Walker.

San Diego State faced BYU and Jimmer Fredette three times this season (losing the first two before gaining revenge in the Mountain West Conference title game). In the first game, point guard D.J. Gay started off on Fredette and The Jimmer went for 43 points.

However, in the second half of that game, 6-foot-8 senior forward Billy White guarded Fredette for a long stretch and held him to five points. Granted, they were five big points, but White did his job.


In their second meeting, White drew the task of guarding Fredette most of the game and “held” him to 25 points. But he made Fredette’s day difficult – the BYU star shot just 8-for-23 from the floor.

And in MWC title game on March 12, White held (again, the term is relative) Fredette to 30 points – on just 10-for-25 shooting.

Fredette is a different type of player than Walker, but obviously, both are prolific scorers who are the lynchpins of their respective teams. Will SDSU coach Steve Fisher put the 6-8 White on the 6-1 (yeah, right) Walker? Here’s betting you see that for at least part of the game, with White getting plenty of help from his teammates as well.

*** I'd go off on a tangent on how embarassing the Big East's performance has been this tournament, but Bill Reynolds pretty much nails it here ... while pointing out that the city of Richmond (with VCU and Richmond) has as many teams in the Sweet 16 as the Big East.

(P.S.: Reynolds' ProJo is also reporting that Ed Cooley is PC's next coach. Good for Ed.)

Actually, a couple of weeks before Reynolds and everybody else, Mike DeCourcy had already nailed it, predicting the Big East would fare poorly in the Big Dance due to its lack of standout players. Kemba Walker excepted, of course.

DeCourcy predicted the Big East would not send a team to the Final Four. Only UConn and/or Marquette remain to prove him wrong.

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SNY to Air Special on UConn's Big East Run

SNY, the official television home of the UConn Huskies football and men’s basketball programs, today announced the network will premiere UConn Huskies: Five Days of Victory – a look back at the Huskies memorable run to the Big East Tournament Championship – on Wednesday (tomorrow) at 7 p.m.

Former Big East coaches and current SNY analysts Norm Roberts and Tim Welsh join host Gary Apple to provide in-depth analysis as they break down the Huskies magical run. UConn Huskies: Five Days of Victory will also feature interviews with the players and coaches as well as spotlight UConn star point guard Kemba Walker’s outstanding tournament play – and where Kemba’s memorable performance ranks in Big East basketball tournament history.

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Everybody's All-American, Pt. II

UConn junior guard Kemba Walker took home another All-America honor today after being named to the Sporting News First Team. This marks the second All-America honor this season for Walker after previously being named to the First Team by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association.

Walker is one of only two players (Norris Cole – Cleveland State) in the NCAA to average 20 points, five rebounds and four assists this season. The Bronx, N.Y. native has led UConn to a 28-9 record and a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Walker has filled the stat sheet averaging 23.6 points, 5.4 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.9 steals per game.

Walker has moved up the UConn record book in several categories throughout the season. With 33 points against Cincinnati on Thursday in the NCAA Third Round, Walker moved into first on the single-season scoring list with 875 points, passing all-time great Donyell Marshall (’94).

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Monday, March 21, 2011

UConn Plays at 7:15 p.m. Thursday

UConn's Sweet Sixteen bout with San Diego State on Thursday in Anaheim tips off at 7:15 p.m. on CBS. Verne Lundquist and Bill Raftery have the call.

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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Going to California


The trip to Anaheim to face San Diego State in the Sweet 16 will be a sort of homecoming for senior guard Donnell Beverly, who grew up about 45 minutes away in Los Angeles. It’ll be the closest Beverly has played to home in his four years at UConn.

“It’s a blessing,” Beverly said. “When I saw the bracket, I was hoping we’d get this far, and we did it. We’re in the Sweet 16, and it’s a real accomplishment to get this far.”

He expects numerous friends and family to want to attend the game.

“I’m going to need everybody on the team’s tickets,” Beverly added. “Hopefully, I can show some guys around, get them some In-N-Out burgers and some things they haven’t had before.”

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Sweet 16 No. 16

UConn is heading to its 16th Sweet 16 -- well, actually its 15th. The Huskies' 1996 trip was vacated due to NCAA violations.

But you get the point. Here's my game story from the Verizon Center.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Fourteen to Glory for Kemba

Kemba Walker's 14th point tonight would make him UConn's new all-time single-season point scorer. Donyell Marshall scored 855 points in 34 games in 1993-94. Walker currently has 842 through 36 contests.

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Surprising Stat

Tonight will be only the sixth time that two Big East teams have ever met in the NCAA tournament. Tomorrow's Syracuse-Marquette match-up, of course, will be the seventh.

It's also the earliest two Big East teams have met. The others:

St. John's-Georgetown, 1985 Final Four
Villanova-Georgetown, 1985 NCAA final
Providence-Georgetown, 1987 Elite Eight
Providence-Syracuse, 1987 Final Four
Pittsburgh-Villanova, 2009 Elite Eight

Friday, March 18, 2011

'Horrible' Oriakhi, Kemba on Video

Alex Oriakhi knew it was coming.

When Kemba Walker was asked Friday about what he remembered most about UConn's prior meeting with Cincinnati on Feb. 27 in the Queen City, he dead-panned: "What sticks out to me is Alex played horrible. That really sticks out to me. And Jeremy (Lamb) played great."

Everyone laughed, though Walker -- with Lamb to his immediate right and Oriakhi to his far right -- was somewhat serious. Or, at least, he wasn't wrong: Oriakhi had just three points and three rebounds in that game, one of his worst outputs of the season.

Here, we have Oriakhi reacting to Kemba's words -- and also "defending" himself for "stealing" a rebound Thursday night that would have put Kemba closer to a triple-double:



And here, we have Walker talking about Oriakhi's poor Cincy game -- but also noting that the biggest difference between UConn on Feb. 27 and UConn now has been Oriakhi's strong play:

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Cronin-gate Put to Rest?

Jim Calhoun was asked about the Mick Cronin situation at today's press conference. Calhoun had hinted a couple of weeks ago that Cronin hadn't voted for Kemba Walker as first-team all-Big East. Cronin said last night that he had spoken with Calhoun about the situation. Here's the transcript:

Q. Mick said last night that you called him earlier this week, I guess, to talk about what Kemba Walker -- whether you voted for him or --
COACH JIM CALHOUN: I called him. I didn't ask him that question. I just said that there was a misunderstanding, he and I needed to talk as opposed to publicly discuss it, and we had a good conversation.

Q. So it's all cleared up?
COACH JIM CALHOUN: It's all cleared up. We had a good conversation. I never knew there was a -- I was just talking about my kid, who I was trying to push every way, and I said someone's away for a month and we went to two different places and they wrote about how they recruited him. I said maybe they didn't vote for him or something, and I shouldn't have said that and I did. So I called Mick just to let him know that. I'm the one who said something initially and just wanted to have him get squared away.
So I'll root for him. I think he's done terrific -- as I just said, he's done a terrific job. And I initiated the phone call and we had a good conversation.

Earlier, Walker was asked about his recruitment by Cronin and the Bearcats:

Q. When you guys were in Cincinnati, Mick Cronin talked about how close you came to going to Cincinnati. How close did you actually come and what kind of relationship do you have with him?
KEMBA WALKER: It was close. But I really wanted to come to UConn my entire life. So I was just waiting for the opportunity and it came. But as far as me and Coach Cronin, we had a great relationship. He did a great job recruiting me. He had a good relationship with my parents, also. So if UConn didn't come in, it would have most likely been Cincinnati.
So, yeah, it was pretty close.

Calhoun was asked about that, too:

Q. Kemba was in here talking about his recruitment a little bit and how he considered Cincinnati but UConn was his first choice. Can you talk a little bit about his recruitment and did you ever think he might go somewhere else besides UConn?
COACH JIM CALHOUN: We know that he had said to Mo Hicks at that time, his coach at Rice, who is now at St. John's, that his dream school was UConn. At the same time, in around that period, September, October, Brandon Jennings was visiting us. And Brandon, like did he with the other three schools, committed on the visit. He had done at the previous two schools, so I didn't no if it was that firm of a commitment.
And he's a great, great kid, by the way. Brandon was a great, great kid.
When the visiting got conclusion and we made a phone call to Brandon and Brandon said, well, I still want to visit a couple more schools but I'm definitely coming to UConn, I turned to Andre LaFleur and said, let's see if you can go all out to try to get Kemba Walker. He'll be a program player, a terrific player for us, a lead guard. We've got Taliek Brown, we'd got Ben Gordon. Let's go after him full blown. He'll be here long term in the program. And the rest I guess is history in some ways.
I always thought he'd be a good to very good to excellent guard. I didn't know -- I didn't automatically see some of the greatness that I now see.

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Live Chat Today at 4:45 p.m.

I'll be doing a live chat from the Verizon Center today at about 4:45 p.m., after UConn and Cincinnati are done with their practices and press conferences. I'll be able to pass on any new information regarding Saturday night's 9:40 p.m. game, so please feel free to join.

Here's the Register's game story from Thursday night's rout of Bucknell.

And here's a story about Cheshire's Brian Fitzpatrick, a sophomore at Bucknell who had to sit out this year per NCAA transfer rules.

Calhoun's Cincinnati Bungle?

One of the main sidebars heading into tomorrow night's UConn-Cincy matchup (9:40 p.m., TBS) will be the Jim Calhoun-Mick Cronin-Kemba Walker "controversy."

A couple of weeks ago, Calhoun was asked about the fact that at least one coach didn't vote for Walker as a first-team all-Big East selection (Notre Dame's Ben Hansbrough was the lone unanimous selection).

Calhoun rightly called it "ridiculous" that Walker wasn't unanimous, but then proceeded to seemingly lay blame on Cronin, for whom Walker was bound to play for until UConn swooped in with a late scholarship offer.

"Someone mentioned that before we played one team, that he had committed to, that they’re still upset three years later," Calhoun said. "My advice is, ‘Get over it.’ In the final analysis, in Kemba’s life it’s not going to make any difference. He’s a first-team all-Big East player. He’ll probably have a longer career than that coach who didn’t’ vote for him.”

Calhoun apparently arrived at this conclusion after reading a Feb. 27 article in the Cincinnati Enquirer. Here's the article: http://news.cincinnati.com/article/20110226/SPT0101/102270341/Cincinnati-almost-got-UConn-star-Kemba-Walker

Not sure how Calhoun interpreted that as evidence that Cronin didn't vote for Walker, but the UConn coach sometimes seems to need to find enemies where they don't exist.

Cronin was asked about the situation after Cincy's win over Missouri late last night. Here's what Cronin said:

"(Calhoun and I) are both big fans of each other. And he gave me a call earlier in the week, and it's like I told him, I look up to him, I have great respect for him. I appreciated his call. He's protecting his player. He knows now I love his player and I voted for his player. So it's nice.
One thing about me is, because of the way I was raised, I like handling things the way they should be handled between coaches like the old days. I'm young, but I look at myself like I'm an old school guy. And it's an honor to coach against him."

We'll ask Calhoun about it all at today's press conference around 3:30 p.m. Be sure to join me for an online chat at 4:45 p.m., where I'll have more information on what happened at today's practice and pressers.

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UConn on TBS

UConn's 9:40 p.m. third-round game with Cincinnati on Saturday will be broadcast on TBS. So will the preceding 7:10 p.m. start between Pitt and Butler.

Cincinnati Red-Eye

And so, it's Cincy at approximately 9:40 p.m. on Saturday, following Pitt-Butler's 7:10 p.m. game.

That means Jim Calhoun vs. Mick Cronin. Cue the "was Cronin the coach who didn't vote Kemba for first team" questions. Hey, gotta be asked.

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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Roscoe Eyes a Tourney Run

Roscoe Smith's eye may still look pretty bad, but his game was a thing of beauty Thursday night: 17 points on 7-for-13 shooting, seven rebounds, two blocks and a diss (sorta) of Louisville after the game.

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UConn Avoids Being a Louisville

Don't think college basketball players pay close attention to what other teams are doing in the NCAA tournament? Think again.

Alex Oriakhi was watching Morehead State pull off its big "second-round" upset of Louisville in his hotel room Thursday afternoon and, admittedly, started getting a little fidgety.

“I was a little bit nervous, to be honest with you,” the sophomore forward confessed. “I didn’t know what to expect (from his own team later in the day).”

Roscoe Smith was watching, too, with his roommate, walk-on P.J. Cochrane.

“I watched the Louisville game, and a little bit of the Kentucky game," he said. "I thought Kentucky was going to get upset, also. When I watched that, I couldn’t believe it.”

Two teams from Kentucky moved on Thursday: the Wildcats (barely) and Morehead State. Louisville's season is all over, just like that.

“They had a tremendous season, battling us in the Big East championship," Smith said of the Cardinals. "But, that’s what happens when you don’t have the mindset or the determination of going hard.”

Ouch! Take that, Rick Pitino!

The Huskies certainly went hard Thursday night in their 81-52 whitewash of Bucknell. The numbers are so one-sided they're not worth getting into -- except maybe Kemba Walker's.

Walker scored a game-high 18 points to go with 12 assists (most-ever for a UConn player in an NCAA tournament game) and eight rebounds. He finished two rebounds shy of the seventh “official” triple-double in NCAA tourney history. There were eight “unofficial” triple-doubles in the tourney prior to the ranking of assists in 1984 and blocks and steals two years later. The NCAA considers “official” triple-doubles to have occurred from 1987 to the present.

When asked if he knew if he was close to a triple-double in the waning minutes, Walker smiled and said: “I knew ... Alex stole my rebound.”

Calhoun took him out of the game for good with 3:47 remaining.

Oh, one other stat is worth mentioning: Walk-on Benjamin Stewart scored on an inside hoop with about 30 seconds to go, his first-ever points as a Husky. His teammates were ecstatic on the bench, as they always are when a walk-on scores.

Asked who was happier for the basket, Stewart or himself, Walker said: “It might have been me."

And when told that Stewart appeared to have traveled on the play, Walker responded:
"Did he? It’s not a travel, unless the ref calls it.”

(Somehow, we don't think Kemba is as gracious when refs call fouls and travels on him ... but we digress).

Walker is also now 13 points shy of matching UConn’s single-season points record of 855, set in 1993-94 by Donyell Marshall. He also moved past Marshall and Khalid El-Amin into ninth place on the school’s career scoring list.

Bottom line for tonight: Bucknell's coach and players had said over the prior few days that they didn't really fear UConn's outside shooting. The Huskies certainly made them pay for that, burying nine 3-pointers.

Granted, it's only Bucknell, but UConn truly appears to be clicking on all cylinders right now. And the Huskies have done another thing: no longer can we media types ask them about any the "fatigue factor" from the Big East tournament.

"That's done," Walker said, emphatically.

So is Louisville.

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A Monumental Day


Greetings from the Verizon Center, where UConn will face Bucknell in an NCAA tournament "second-round" game at 7:20 p.m.

Did a little site-seeing around D.C. today and went to the Holocaust Museum. Pretty powerful stuff there. I'd recommend a visit to anyone who ever comes to town and hasn't been yet.

Back to more frivolous affairs, a few quick pregame notes:

UConn is 44-27 in 29 NCAA tourney appearances. The Huskies are 40-13 under Jim Calhoun and 26-7 in their last nine appearances. Under Calhoun, UConn is 27-4 in first and second round games, including 15-1 in the first round. (Yes, we understand they're calling this the "second round" now, but you get the point).

Calhoun is 31-3 when playing a team seeded No. 6 through 16.

As for Bucknell:

This is the Bison's fifth trip to the Big Dance and first since going in consecutive years in 2005 and 2006. Bucknell upset Kansas (as the No. 14 seed) and Arksansas (as the No. 13 seed) in those respective years.

The Bison are 2-3 against this year's tourney field, with wins over Richmond and Bosotn University and losses to Villanova, Marquette and Princeton.

Bucknell is 0-2 all-time against UConn, with those losses coming in 1952 and 1953.

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Junior Walker & the All-Stars ...?


... or Kemba & the Miracles? 'Tis the question for UConn. Will Kemba Walker need to be a one-man show in this NCAA tournament, or will he get help from his teammates? The latter would seem to be far more instrumental to the Huskies' potential success, though we've seen numerous examples of great players throwing a team on his back and taking it places (Reggie Williams, Danny Manning, etc.).

Here's a story on that subject from today's Register.

Here's a piece on how much difference a year has made for the UConn program.

And here's a notebook that focuses on Bucknell's Bryan Cohen, who's in for quite a challenge guarding Kemba Walker tonight.

(Still don't get the Junior Walker & the All-Stars reference? Big R&B group from the '60's. "Shotgun" was their big hit.)

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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Tall Task

Bucknell junior Bryan Cohen is the two-time Patriot League defensive player of the year. As a 6-foot-5 guard, he’s got great size and length for his conference.

Cohen has drawn very challenging defensive assignments in non-conference play, as well: Wake Forest’s George Teague last year, Villanova’s Corey Fisher, Boston College’s Reggie Jackson and Marquette’s Jimmy Butler this season.

However …

“Clearly, his task (on Thursday) is the biggest one he’s faced,” Bucknell coach Dave Paulsen said.

That’s because Cohen’s assignment in the Bison’s NCAA tournament second-round bout with UConn will be Kemba Walker.

“We’ve played against some pretty good guards,” Paulsen noted. “But nobody quite the likes of Kemba Walker.”

Although Walker, the Big East tournament most valuable player and first-team USBA All-American, may be playing better than anyone in the country right now, Cohen is looking forward to the match-up.

“As a player, you always want to play against the best,” he said. “There’s no better stage than playing against one of the best players, on national TV.”

That’s the kind of attitude that has helped Cohen emerge as a defensive stopper.

“It’s my role on the team,” he said. “This year, coach really emphasized that I be the defensive stopper on the team … I think it’s just a mentality that you have, going every day in practice, being focused on trying to stop whoever you’re guarding. I really accept my role on the team.”

Added Paulsen: “We sat him down after his freshman year and one of the things we try to say: ‘Is there something you can do that you can be the best in our league at? And you could be the best defensive player in the league,’ and he’s embraced that and kind of relished it and he’s gained confidence from his teammates in doing that.”

A quick look at Cohen’s other tough defensive assignments, however, may bode for a long night for him. Fisher hit four 3-pointers and scored 24 points against the Bison and Jackson went for 22 on 8-for-10 shooting.

“No disrespect,” UConn freshman guard Shabazz Napier said, “but the Patriot League is not the Big East. It’s a different atmosphere when you’re out there. But, if he does well, he does well. He won’t know until he starts playing him. It’s tough for me to guard Kemba, and they say I’m a good defender.”

Napier then added, with a slight snicker: “Best of luck to him.”

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Roscoe Smith is a native of Baltimore, only about 45 minutes up the road, but he says he won’t have any more family and friends at tomorrow's game than he did at last week’s Big East tournament.

“I don’t really have a big entourage or anything,” he said.

Smith’s right eye is very red, with a sizeable bruise still underneath it. But he says the injury, from a Gary McGhee inadvertent elbow last Thursday, isn’t hampering him at all.

“Even though it doesn’t look good, it’s healing,” he said. “It was swollen more than this. I still have the eight stitches … but slowly but surely (it’s healing).”

Jamal Coombs-McDaniel had a large ice pack on his left knee due to a bout with tendonitis he’s been battling for a while now. He said he’s fine for tomorrow’s game.

Odds and Ends

*** With Donyell Marshall in attendance, UConn practiced at a high school outside the city Wednesday morning, then went to the Verizon Center to meet the press and for a 40-minute open practice that consisted mostly of drills.

*** Nothing’s official yet, but it appears there’s a good chance that, if the Huskies win tonight, they’ll play Saturday’s late game (9:40 p.m. start).

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'The Patriot League is not the Big East'

Shabazz Napier talks about Bucknell with respect and knows the Bison could be a tricky foe on Thursday night. But when asked about Ryan Cohen, Bucknell's 6-5 guard who'll draw the task of guarding Kemba Walker in the game, Napier couldn't help noting that Cohen may be in for something he's never seen before. Then, he wishes him luck.

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Reminder: Live Chat Today at 3:15 p.m.

Just another reminder that I'll be doing a live chat at 3:15 p.m., right after the Huskies finish their press conferences and open practice here at the Verizon Center. I'll have whatever news comes out of both, and talk about all things UConn men's basketball.

Hope to see you then at http://nhregister.com/articles/2011/03/15/sports/doc4d7fff2fbaac4210179523.txt

At the Phone Booth

Just arrived at the Verizon Center (nee MCI Center, a.k.a. the Phone Booth) for today's NCAA tourney pressers, practices, etc. Not surprisingly, the wireless Internet is down (nice to have an air card, though).

As we were walking into the building, it dawned on us that UConn's recent history here hasn't been good. Five years ago, it was George Mason. Need I say more? Three years ago, Roy Hibbert's 3-pointer in the waning seconds gave Georgetown a win over the Huskies. Roy Hibbert, a 7-foot center! And last year, UConn squandered a 17-point first-half lead and lost to the Hoyas again, thanks largely to Austin Freeman's 33-point explosion.t

The Huskies are hoping for better luck tomorrown night against Bucknell. I was surprised to see they're only a 10-point favorite this morning.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Live Online Chat Wednesday at 3:15 p.m.

I will be doing a live chat on Wednesday at 3:15 p.m. from the Verizon Center, shortly after UConn finishes its press conferences and practice. I'll have details on whatever comes out of the Huskies' first day in Washington, D.C.

Please feel free to join me at: http://bit.ly/eoaZM0

Kemba's NBA Draft Prospects

Maybe this is a bad time to look ahead – and realize that there is virtually no chance that Kemba Walker returns to UConn for a senior season. Still, I’m pretty intrigued by his NBA draft prospects. Surely, they’re climbing with each new sensational effort. No doubt Walker improved his stock quite a bit with last week’s Big East tournament virtuoso performance, but it’s really anybody’s guess where he could go.

For example: as of March 9 (a week ago), NBAdraft.net had Walker going at the 26th pick of the first round to New Jersey. Draftexpress.com, meanwhile, was a little more up-to-date (March 11) and has him going at No. 7 to Detroit. Somewhere between lies the truth, no doubt.

I talked to an NBA Western Conference scout a few weeks ago about Walker. Here’s what he had to say (and keep in mind, this was before Walker’s incredible run through the Big East tournament):

“I think he’s maturing, getting better. The best part of his game, almost like (Ty) Lawson, is when the ball’s in his hands he’s a one-man wrecking crew on a fast break. I think that’s going to be one of his major assets at the next level. Of course, Lawson ended up with a coach (George Karl in Denver) who lets him play like that. Hopefully, Kemba will, too.”

Could Kemba be a lottery pick?

“I met up with a guy I scout with, we tried to put some names together. This truly is a weak, weak draft, which really is in his favor. If the kid from Duke (Kyrie irving) decides to come out and everybody feels comfortable with his injury … what other point guards are out there, really?”

(Brandon Knight, I suppose … but his point is well-taken).

Will the 6-foot-1 (maybe) Walker be able to get his shot off in the NBA?

“Yeah, he’s quick and strong. Hitting shots, I don’t think he’ll have any problem with that. Shots will be available to him. If I was working with him, I’d have him put the defense on its heels. He’s got to work on pull-up jumpers. That’s the shot he’s going to have, and he’s gotten a lot better at it. He’ll have a lot of open 15, 17-footers -- the kind of shots (Rajon) Rondo’s not taking. Those are the shots he’s gotten better at. Typically, guys tend to be better shooters as they get older. There’s nothing broken about his mechanics.”

“He’s got enough New York in him, he’s not worried about going to the hoop. He’s kind of fearless. As long as he’s not afraid of getting clobbered, he’s got a strong enough body to put up with it.”

Will he be able to defend at the next level?

“He’s quick enough. A lot of times, guys will go the path of least resistance. If you’re quick enough to do that, you’re quick enough to guard somebody. He may have to make it part of his ID from now on.”

What kind of an NBA player will Walker be?

“He’s a bigger, better J.J. Barea. And Barea’s a helluva player. It’s the old saying: it’s the size of the fight in the dog, not the dog in the fight.”

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Some Husky Trivia

Get yer Husky trivia on at Sporcle, where I never would have thought Kyle Bailey and Benjamin Stewart would be quiz answers.

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Monday, March 14, 2011

Breaking Down Bucknell

So what should you know about Bucknell? Well, the numbers tell us this: 25-8 overall, 13-1 in the Patriot League. The Bison have won 10 straight and 19 of their last 20. They've got a 6-11 center (Mike Muscala) who can score (14.8 ppg), a guard (Bryson Johnson) who can flat-out shoot (47-percent on 3-pointers), a point guard (Darryl Shazier) who is exremely efficient with the ball and a 6-5 guard (Bryan Cohen) who was the Patriot League's defensive player of the year the past two seasons.

They're also pretty confident.

“We don’t want to be giddy, with our eyes like deer in the headlights,” third-year Bucknell coach Dave Paulsen said on Monday. “We want to go out and try to win this thing ... We’ve been solid and steady, and have the mindset that teams have to be great to beat us. Now, we haven’t played a team the likes of UConn in a while. So, whether we can be steady and solid with the ball against those people is another issue.”

"I think we’re one of hottest teams in nation," said Muscala. "The losses we've had, you never want to lose, but after that loss (to Marquette on Nov. 14), we started getting even more focused, found some things we needed to correct. We're playing great team ball, both defensively and offensively. I’m excited to see what we can do."

Paulsen said his team played one possession of zone this season, gave up a 3-pointer and abandoned it forever. So the Bison -- who have decent size -- will go man-to-man with the Huskies. Cohen will draw the unenviable task of guarding Walker, but he'll need help.

"It defnitely needs to be a team effort stopping Kemba Walker," said Shazier. "It's going to take everyone to stop him."

The Bison have played two Big East teams (and one former Big East team) already this season. They lost to Villanova 68-52 in their season opener, played Marquette tough in a 72-61 loss in Milwaukee two nights later and lost to Boston College 84-80 on Dec. 22 in Chestnut Hill.

Shazier said facing other top guards like 'Nova's Corey Fisher and BC's Reggie Jackson will serve the team well when encountering Walker.

"We're going to be prepared," he promised.

The Bison program may also have a little kismet on their side. They authored one of the more stunning upsets in NCAA tournament history back in 2005, edging Kansas 65-64. Kansas, like UConn, was a No. 3 seed. The following year, Bucknell bopped Arkansas in the first round.

"It’s like our coach said,” Muscala noted, “Bucknell doesn’t just make tournaments, (it) wins games.”

Everybody's All-American

Kemba Walker has been named to the USBWA's All-America First Team.

Here are the first and second-team selections:



USBWA All-America First Team

Jimmer Fredette, BYU

JaJuan Johnson, Purdue

Nolan Smith, Duke

Jared Sullinger, Ohio State

Kemba Walker, Connecticut



USBWA All-America Second Team

Kenneth Faried, Morehead State

Jordan Hamilton, Texas

Ben Hansbrough, Notre Dame

Marcus Morris, Kansas

Derrick Williams, Arizona

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Live Chat Transcript

Here's how today's live chat, with several other college basketball writers, went:

Live Chat at 11:30 a.m.

Please join me and several other writers for a live chat on UConn and the NCAA tournament. See you there!

http://www.nhregister.com/articles/2011/03/13/sports/doc4d7d90104d7cd686529731.txt

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Calhoun Ready for Big Dance

Jim Calhoun talks about UConn's No. 3 seed in the West Region, as well as its first opponent, Bucknell, whom it'll play on Thursday at 7:20 p.m. at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C.

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Cheshire's Fitzpatrick on Bucknell

UConn's opening-round NCAA tourney opponent, Bucknell, features a local kid. Brian Fitzpatrick is a 6-foot-8 sophomore forward from Cheshire. He attended Northfield Mount Herman Prep.

Fitzpatrick didn't play this season as a transfer from Penn.

Tyler Olander, a Mansfield resident, knows Fitzpatrick a bit from AAU. Olander played with him for a few games while playing for his brother Ryan's Connecticut Gold AAU team a few years ago.

What else to know about Bucknell? The Bison are 25-8 and went 13-1 in the Patriot League, beating Lafayette in the conference championship game on Friday, 72-57.

The team is led by Mike Muscala, a 6-foot-11 sophomore center who averages 14.8 points and 7.5 rebounds, and Bryson Johnson, a sophomore guard who's hit 47 percent of his 3-pointers this season.

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Go West, Young Men

UConn is the No. 3 seed in the West Region. The Huskies will face Bucknell on Thursday in Washington, D.C. A win over Bucknell would match them up against either Cincinnati (Mick Cronin!) or Missouri's 40 minutes of hell.

Duke is the No. 1 seed in the region and San Diego State is No. 2. Texas is the fourth seed.

All three of UConn's trips to the Final Four have come out of the West.

Garden Party

Kemba Walker gets his Most Outstanding Player trophy, and the Huskies celebrate their historic Big East championship run.

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Game Story

Here's my game story on UConn's Big East tournament championship victory Saturday night at the Garden: http://nhregister.com/articles/2011/03/13/sports/doc4d7c47548ad02714947000.txt

And here's Jim Calhoun talking about his hopes for the NCAA tournament:

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Calhoun Cuts the Nets

Jim Calhoun cuts the nets in celebration of his seventh Big East tournament title.

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Saturday, March 12, 2011

Calhoun vs. Pitino, Redux

Might as well break out the Jim Calhoun vs. Rick Pitino tale of the tape again:

Head-to-head: Pitino, 15-7. Pitino was 6-3 against Calhoun while Pitino was at BU and Calhoun at Northeastern; 1-0 while Pitino was at PC and Calhoun at Northeastern; 2-0 when Pitino was at PC and Calhoun at UConn; and 6-4 while at Louisville.

National titles: Calhoun, 2-1.

Final Fours appearances: Pitino, 5-3.

Career victories: Calhoun, 848-597.

Number of teams brought to Final Four: Pitino, 3-1.

Scandals: Nate Miles' recruitment vs. Scenes from an Italian Restaurant. Advantage: Pitino.

Best coaching performance: 1990 Impossible Dream team vs. 1987 PC Final Four squad. Advantage: Pitino.

Sideline attire: Standard suit and tie vs. wildly expensive, Frank Nitti-from-Untouchables white suits. Advantage: Pitino.

Celtics ties: Supposedly the final cut in training camp one year vs. extremely disappointing head coach. Advantage: Calhoun.

Background: Boston Irish vs. New York Italian. I'm not touching this one.

Hall of Fame status: 2005 inductee vs. 2011 nominee. Advantage: Calhoun.

The best part of tonight's game may be watching these two coaches go at it. They've been rivals for some 30 years now, and you know that, deep down, they really don't like each other. Respect each other, no doubt, but like each other? No. And you've got to believe it burns Calhoun that he's now lost three in a row to Ricky P.

I also love listening to both of these guys after a game. Hearing Rick Pitino talk about basketball, the strategy of basketball, the key points of a game, is as educational as it is entertaining. And, of course, Calhoun's postgame pressers aren't to be missed -- especially if the Huskies have lost.

You'd think Calhoun would be satisfied -- or as satisfied as he can be -- if UConn loses tonight after winning four games in four nights. But no, because he would have lost to Pitino.

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