Back in 1998, coming home from the Final Four in San Antonio, I happened to see then-Connecticut basketball coach Jim Calhoun at a airport gate, waiting for his flight home. His team hadn’t been there; he was in the city attending the national coaches convention in conjunction with college hoops’ climactic event.
I couldn’t help but wonder if/when he might get the monkey off his back and get to UConn’s first Final Four (that year, the Huskies had lost to North Carolina in the Elite Eight). Well, 16 years later, here’s UConn with four national titles, the first three Calhoun’s, which is only one of the astounding things about the program and the 2014 tournament.
Connecticut won another one Monday night, beating Kentucky, 60-54. For perspective on that run that began in 1999, consider that Duke has won half as many titles (two) in that span.
Thoughts on the latest UConnquest, and the tournament:
* It’s one of the game’s cliches that guard play wins out, and it was never more evident in Connecticut’s run. Shabazz Napier, with help from Ryan Boatright, controlled pace, made shots and got in passing lanes all three weeks. Napier was probably as good as Kemba Walker in Connecticut’s last title run in 2011, except Walker also carried the Huskies through an improbable Big East tournament as well.
* Connecticut’s defense was an underrated facet of its game. In the Elite Eight matchup with Michigan State, the Huskies simply stuffed Sparty’s offense, and it was supposed to be the other way around.
* John Calipari might have had three titles, rather than one, if his teams could shoot free throws. Monday night, the Wildcats had 24 attempts, Connecticut only 10, but the Wildcats had just three more points at the line than the Huskies. In 2008, it was Calipari’s Memphis team that missed clutch free throws down the stretch and eventually caved to Kansas.
* Kentucky botched the last defensive sequence when trailing by four inside the final minute, first “giving” a foul, then allowing time to elapse before muddying the strategy by fouling again. And if I heard Calipari correctly, his explanation wasn’t executed very well, either.
* I can’t believe a team has ever had a more hair-raising four-game run in the tournament than Kentucky, which, against Wichita State, Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin in order, took the lead for good with 1:40 left, then 40 seconds, then three seconds, then 5.7 seconds.
* No original thought on this, but the flip-a-coin, random nature of events in the tournament sometimes defies comprehension. Some games, some deep runs, some history, spins on the fragile axis of a possession arrow or a tipped ball or a shot that jiggles in and out. This was UConn’s opening win in the tournament against St. Joe’s: The Huskies’ biggest lead in regulation, before they won in overtime, was two points. Two. It’s why the tournament is simply the best, better than the Super Bowl, better than the World Series. Forget TV ratings. It’s theater of the unbelievable, with regularity.
* Just as a clutch three can save a team, an injury can sabotage it. Willie Cauley-Stein’s ankle sprain might have scuttled Kentucky’s chances to go all the way. He was a shot-blocking, defensive presence, and the loss of a player always changes roles and messes with rotations. Wildcat fans would probably also argue that Julius Randle and Alex Poythress weren’t at full speed, either, and UConn’s Boatright played through a bad ankle in the closing minutes.
* We tend to think of teams as being what they’re going to be, if not by February, at least by early March. But UConn proves that you don’t have to be static late in the season, you can always get better and then ride confidence and momentum. No eventual NCAA champion until this year had lost a game by 33 points, as the Huskies did against Louisville March 8.
* Napier’s One Shining Moment probably wasn’t the same as NCAA president Mark Emmert’s. With Emmert on the victory stand, Napier took the opportunity, when interviewed by Jim Nantz, to ask for momentary quiet and then admonished no one in particular, “This is what happened when you banned us!” That was a reference to the academic shortfall that caused UConn to be benched from the 2013 tournament, courtesy of Calhoun’s administration. Funny, we didn’t get a followup question from Nantz on that one.