Tuesday, March 6, 2012

UConn Bolstered by Return of Big Daddy Cane

Jim Calhoun needed a cane to walk around for several days before his back surgery a little over a week ago, but that had to end once he returned to the bench.

“I can’t walk with a cane on the sidelines, because two officials might get hit,” he quipped after Tuesday’s 81-67 win over DePaul.

Cane or no can, Calhoun’s presence has certainly given UConn a lift the last two games – at just the right time.

“Having him there on the sidelines is great,” said freshman center Andre Drummond. “Just hearing his voice brings us a joy, even though he screams a lot.”

Added Alex Oriakhi: “He puts a fire in our belly. We know Coach Calhoun is no slacker out there, so we’ve got to go out and play with a sense of urgency.”

Calhoun didn’t accompany the team on its bus ride to New York after practice on Monday, instead coming down on his own. But that’s what he normally does, and had nothing to do with his back and being on a bus for three hours.

He opened up a little more about his surgery, how he feels right now and what he must do to keep feeling better.

“The pain is a different kind of pain, it’s a muscular pain,” Calhoun said. “Thank God it’s no longer a nerve pain … To alleviate that pain was incredible. It took us three weeks to find the right solution, which wasn’t to put rods and fibers and fuses and all that stuff. We had a 3 ½-hour procedure that was pretty intricate ut not transforming in the sense that it’s a hole in my back and it’s sore, but nothing like a win or two wins now to make that (better).

“But without question, I will definitely try to get more rest than I normally do.”

*** Believe it or not, there was a time not long ago when UConn couldn’t win a Big East tournament game.

From their four-point loss to Syracuse in 2005 to an embarrassing beatdown at the hands of St. John’s in 2010 – and with a certain six-overtime loss in between – the Huskies lost six straight conference tournament games.

Then came last year’s unprecedented five-wins-in-five-days run. Suddenly, the Huskies can’t lose at Madison Square Garden in March.

UConn has now won six straight Big East tournament games, the fourth-best streak in the event’s history. Ir has also won 12 consecutive postseason games overall.

“When we get into tournaments, obviously it’s a new season,” said Jeremy Lamb, who popped in a game-high 25 points. “All year we’ve been finding ourselves and everybody on the team has been stepping up. We’ve been preparing all year for this time. Now that it’s here, we just want to give it all we’ve got and don’t look back.”

*** Drummond finished with 12 points, five rebounds and four blocks in his Madison Square Garden debut.

“It’s been great, a dream come true,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to play here.”

Drummond has also been displaying some improved low-post moves lately, including a few nifty spin moves for hoops on Tuesday.

“I’ve been working on that a lot, just trying to get myself better with my back to the basket, because I’m more of a face-up person,” he said. “Getting the basic spin move and trying to finish on somebody, I’ve been working a lot on that move.”

He even unveiled a nifty behind-the-back crossover in the lane, something not seen prior to Tuesday.

“I can’t show ‘em all, can’t show ‘em everything,” he quipped.

The lowlight: Drummond missed all six of his free throw attempts. He is now 4-for-26 from the charity stripe in his last seven games.

*** Less than five minutes into the game, Oriakhi was hit with a flagrant technical foul after shoving 5-foot-11 guard Worrell Clahar on the low post.

“I just got hit in my mouth and I reacted,” he said. “When anybody gets hit in the face, you just react. It was a dumb mistake on my part, but you’ve got to learn from it.”

Indeed, he did learn his lesson in the second half: “I got hit again (by Cleveland Melvin) but I just kept calm.”

*** Ryan Boatright, who hails from suburban Chicago (Aurora, Ill.), didn’t play well in his first bout against his hometown team a few weeks ago, shooting 1-for-9 with five turnovers. He rebounded on Tuesday, though, with 19 points and seven assists.

“The first time we played them, I felt like I pressed a little too much and just missed a lot of easy shots and (had) a lot of careless turnovers,” he confessed. “Coach talked to me more, said I didn’t play very well the first time but said at practice, ‘You’re going to have a great game.’”

*** Lamb’s layup with seven seconds left in the opening half made him the 46th player in UConn history to go over the 1,000-point mark for his career. He has also scored in double figures in all six of his Big East tourney games.

*** Calhoun has now won 34 Big East tourney games, passing John Thompson for sole possession of second place on the all-time list.

*** The win may also have punched the Huskies’ ticket to the NCAA tournament.

“We played, I believe, the most difficult schedule in the country, if not the second most difficult,” Calhoun pointed out. “Secondly, we played the most difficult schedule in the Big East. And third, only three teams in the country – Villanova, Vanderbilt and Connecticut – played 21 top-100 teams. So out of 31 games, we had 10 breathers. And who are those breathers? UNC-Asheville? Oh, by the way, they’re in the tournament, and I can keep on going.”

Still, it might behoove them to beat West Virginia (19-12) this afternoon to remove all doubt.

*** Caron Butler was in the house, and paid a visit to the UConn locker room after the game.

*** I’m not sure what this Calhoun quote means: “Someone said I only have two years left on my extension. I don’t know if I can make two more minutes. For them to think, I’m grateful about that. I don’t know if I have two more years in my contract, now it’s like I’m calling the shots. Someone better pay me for two more years. That’s what I’m saying.”


He did, however, thank (most) of the media for respecting his privacy during his medical leave and covering the process the right way. Hey, I only called him at home once.

*** Oh, and speaking of me, I predicted UConn would win the game, 82-68. You can check it on Twitter (@DaveBorges).

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