Thursday, March 8, 2012

Boeheim Has Huskies Going to Sweet 16 ... 'At Minimum'

It had to be asked. Still, you could see Jim Calhoun readying to pounce as soon as the reporter started asking: “Do you feel like you’ve done enough to make the NCAA tournament?”

“Well, let’s see …” Calhoun began, and what followed was his now daily dissertation on the Huskies’ No. 3 strength of schedule, their 22 games against top-100 RPI teams (and don’t forget tourney-bound UNC-Asheville!), etc., etc.

Bottom line: UConn is in the NCAA tournament. The Huskies may have cinched it with Tuesday’s win over lowly DePaul. If not, Wednesday’s victory over West Virginia likely sealed the deal.

“I’m not going to make a pitch for it,” Calhoun said. “I trust the basketball committee.”

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim not only has the Huskies in – he’s got them going to the Sweet Sixteen, if not further.

“I would be shocked if (the Huskies) don’t win two games in the NCAA tournament at the minimum,” Boeheim said. “At the minimum.”

Entering Thursday, UConn was ranked No. 33 in the RPI and No. 3 in strength of schedule. Both rankings may have raised despite the loss to the Orange, who boast the No. 1 RPI.

Bottom line: the Huskies are likely looking at a No. 9 or 10 seed for the Big Dance.

“I feel confident the way we’ve played the last couple of days in this tournament have pretty much solidified a spot in the tournament,” said Tyler Olander. “If it doesn’t, we’ll go from there, that’s kind of out of our hands.”

Added Calhoun: “I don’t know what else we have to prove that we’re probably one of the top 30 teams in the country. We’re certainly not one of the top 10, 20, but we’re one of the top 30 teams in the country. I don’t make those decisions, but I know who we are. I’ve seen who we’ve beaten.”

Still, Shabazz Napier will be nervous watching the Selection Show on CBS on Sunday.

“I was nervous last year, and I knew we were making it in (after winning the conference tourney),” he said. “I’ll probably be nervous again, that’s just how I am.”

*** Andre Drummond's massive, one-handed putback jam of a Napier missed trey was truly awe-inspiring. It also gave UConn an eight-point lead with 14:02 left, causing Boeheim to burn a timeout.

The Orange clamped down on defense, went ahead for good about 6 ½ minutes later and held on for the 58-55 win over the Huskies – their third win over UConn in the past 26 days.

“Nothing bothers us,” Boeheim said afterwards. “If things were bothering us, we wouldn’t be 31-1.”

Syracuse went ahead for good (48-47) on a Dion Waiters 3-pointer with 5:41 left, led by seven with 26.7 seconds left, then survived a near-miracle UConn comeback.

Napier hit a layup and was fouled with 16.9 ticks remaining, missed the free throws, but Drummond scored on a putback. James Southerland hit a pair of free throws, Drummond countered with a reverse layup with about five seconds left, and the Orange managed a long inbounds pass to run out the clock.

Close but no cigar for a third time meant little to the Huskies.

“That’s our third time playing them, we fell short every time,” Jeremy Lamb pointed out. “First time, OK, we played them (well). Second time, alright … but if you lose again, you can’t get confidence out of that.”

Still, Calhoun – a man who almost never finds satisfaction in a loss – was extremely proud of his team.

“Did we shoot great? No,” he said. “Did we make great decisions? No. Did we play with great heart and great intensity and did we play for us and each other? Without a doubt, and I couldn’t be prouder of them.”

Waiters led all scorers with 18 points. Napier led the Huskies with 15, Drummond had 14 points and 10 rebounds and Lamb netted 10. After surrendering 26 offensive rebounds to West Virginia the day before, UConn outrebounded the Orange, 46-34. Tyler Olander grabbed eight boards.

“We were going to rebound today,” Calhoun said. “Did we have a hard practice to do that? No, we just kind of all collaborated on it last night.”

Last year, of course, behind the heroics of Kemba Walker, UConn won an unprecedented five games in five days to win the tournament championship. The Huskies were hoping for a repeat run, but fatigue – mental, not physical – hindered them. The Hall of Fame coach had returned to coach the team in practice on Friday after missing the previous month on medical leave and undergoing back surgery on Feb. 27.

“Fatigue is the most over-written about thing in sports,” Calhoun said. “Mental fatigue, though, I felt we had a little bit at the end. Emotionally, we’ve been through seven – and we’re going back to Friday – Saturday’s game against Pittsburgh was very emotional and traveling Monday and playing Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and they stood up to it all. We came up a little bit short. Once again, I love them and I’m proud of them.”

Personally, I think it's a bit of a blessing for UConn that it lost Thursday. Now, the Huskies have a few days to collect themselves, take a breather before (almost certainly) getting ready for the NCAA tournament. This team was a bit tired, either mentally or physically, and playing another night or two in New York may not have behooved them as much as getting their legs (and minds) back a little.

*** Calhoun took the loss hard, not for himself but for his players.

“I’m really, really anguished in many, many ways because when I arrived last Friday in the gym, not knowing after four weeks what was going to happen, little did I know that I’d find a new team,” he said. “Not that we were bad or anything else before, but just who we were and what we were was different.”

Napier concurred.

“We’re starting to have fun,” the sophomore point guard said. “We’re out there smiling, no matter what. Team chemistry comes from having fun and doing things that friends do. We all finally started having fun when Coach came back because we all started feeling like a big family again.”

*** Olander had four points, four assists and eight rebounds (his highest total since mid-November). Still, he placed blame on himself for the Huskies’ loss.

“I feel I played well until when it mattered,” he said, “then kind of broke down a little bit, and I think maybe cost us the game a little bit with mental mistakes that can’t happen.”

Down the stretch, Syracuse was playing its guards far out on the perimeter to keep Napier and Jeremy Lamb in check. UConn wanted to get the ball to Olander at the high post, where his passing and shooting ability could be a weapon against the Syracuse zone. But apparently, there were some breakdowns at key spots.

“We just didn’t run the play we were supposed to run,” Napier said of one sequence. “We were supposed to run a quick-pick play. We were unable to do that, so I stood out there forever trying to figure out what we were going to run. We were just confused. It’s my fault, I’m the point guard, I’ve got to tell my team this is the play we’re running, especially in those situations. The moment got too big for me, I guess.”

*** Boeheim was asked about the NCAA investigation into reports that Syracuse had allowed players to practice and play with the team in prior years even after having knowledge that they'd flunked school-administered drug tests.

"This was reported five years ago, and we're waiting for them to finish the process," he said.

He later added: "This is a media, this is you people's thing. This doesn't bother our players or our team or me. This is a media thing, period ... I'm much more concerned aobut my wife being mad at me than I am anything else, to tell you the truth."

Then, he quipped: "I think that Manning should really come to the Jets, too."

*** Many of the usual suspects were at the game cheering on UConn: Andrea Walker (Kemba’s mom), Craig Austrie. Donyell Marshall wasn’t there but was obviously watching, as his frequent Tweets would indicate. New UConn athletic director Warde Manuel was in the house, as was Geno Auriemma – a close friend of Jim. That’s Jim Boeheim, it should be noted.

The feeling, apparently, is mutual with Calhoun.

"I  love Jim Boeheim like a brother," he said, "and through everything else, includding other things that have gone on, he's done an incredible job coaching his team and being unselfish and giving to each other."

*** UCoonn-Syracuse is like Red Sox-Yankees of '03-04: two teams utterly incapable of playing a nice, normal, tidy game. Today wasn't as crazy as normal, but still pretty entertaining.

Sad that it could soon be a thing of the past.

*** Oh, and I'm not crazy about the Orange in the NCAA tourney. Don't you kinda need that star player who's going to lead you and take over when you need it most? Is Dion Waiters that guy? Maybe. But I'd hardly be shocked if the Cuse is done before the Final Four.

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