HOUSTON — A lei draped around his neck and the Pacific Ocean crashing behind, Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun sat on the dais at the Maui Invitational, joking that not only did he not know what to expect from his team, he was still trying to learn their names.
Four months after that moment of self deprecation, the 68-year-old coach has hustled the young Huskies into the Final Four with a mix of guile, gut instincts and nimble string-pulling in what might be the best coaching job of his 25 seasons at UConn.
“He always seems to get it right,” said Kemba Walker, Calhoun’s star player and shoulder to lean on.
He certainly has this season.
Just a year ago, Calhoun was hearing calls for his job after a that-can’t-happen-here 18-16 season that kept UConn out of the NCAA tournament after reaching the Final Four the season before.
The Huskies and their grizzled coach went into this season without many expectations, the roster full of underclassmen picked to finish 10th in the Big East and left out of the preseason polls.
Connecticut (30-9) had its breakout moment in paradise, fighting past Wichita State, then-No. 2 Michigan State, eighth-ranked Kentucky and an earthquake to win the Maui Invitational.
The Huskies kept rolling for a while, hit a funk, then went on an almost-unthinkable run through the Big East tournament into the NCAAs, a nine-wins-in-19-days stretch that sent them to the Final Four for a rematch against the Wildcats on Saturday at Houston’s Reliant Stadium.
Walker has gotten a lot of the credit, lifting the Huskies, sometimes single-handedly, to a place few even in Storrs could have imagined.
Calhoun has been the wily puppet master, pulling a string here to give a player a spark, another there to get just the right matchups, even tugging on his star Walker to make sure he’s in the right frame of mind.
He’s tinkered with playing time, switched matchups based on his gut, sat back and watched.
Calhoun has pulled guard Shabazz Napier, sent him back out, pulled him again when he didn’t like what he saw, sent the freshman back out a third time and finally got what he wanted.
He gave Jeremy Lamb some hard, sit-on-the-bench lessons early in the season, and the freshman guard responded in March by hitting some of UConn’s biggest shots of the season.
Against Cincinnati in the third round of the NCAA tournament, Calhoun went looking for a spark and brought in sophomore forward Jamal Coombs-McDaniel just 14 seconds into the game. Coombs-McDaniel got 10 key points in 20 minutes to help lead the Huskies.
Calhoun also is willing to occasionally step back and let Walker be the one in charge, in part because he trusts Walker’s smarts and ability, but also to stoke his star player’s ego.
The backseat approach worked perfectly late in the regional final against Arizona, when Calhoun called a play for Walker but changed his mind when the junior guard said to go to Lamb because of double teams. With the attention on Walker, Lamb hit the two biggest shots of the game to send the Huskies into the Final Four.
Calhoun’s approach this season isn’t a whole lot different from any other. It’s just him doing he’s always done best. Difference is, this season it’s been more pronounced, caught more attention because of where it has led and what he had to overcome to get there.
“He has seven freshmen, five of whom play, and he literally is picking and choosing each game, and even within the game, almost each part of the game: who’s going to fit here, who’s doing something tonight, who’s not doing something tonight,” said George Blaney, an assistant under Calhoun the past 10 years. “Being able to see who fits at the time that they fit has been a major part of the success of this team.”
Clearly, Calhoun had the chops before this. A member of the Naismith Hall of Fame, he’s won two national titles, led UConn to the Final Four three previous times and is sixth on the all-time Division I wins list with 853 in a 39-year career that started at Northeastern.This season ranks high on the chest-puffing list because of what Calhoun had to go through.
He started it off by missing the Huskies’ season-kickoff events because he was meeting with the NCAA about recruiting violations. And he had a roster that included one established player (Walker) who was expected to guide a team full of seven freshmen and two sophomores, leading to it’s-a-rebuilding-year speculation from everyone outside Connecticut.
The Huskies played well early, racing up the rankings after Maui, but hit a funk late in the season to finish 9-9 in the Big East. In the midst of that slide, Calhoun was hit with a three-game suspension by the NCAA — to be served next season — for failing to create an atmosphere of compliance within his program and missed the next game against Marquette to attend the funeral of his wife ‘s sister.
But one of Calhoun’s defining characteristics is his tenaciousness, his ability to not just bounce back from adversity, but come back at it swinging.
He is, after all, a cancer survivor and someone who understands that fighting through adversity can make success feel that much greater.
This season, this late run to Houston has been just another hurdle for Calhoun, and he wants to make sure his players fully grasp what it means to even have the chance to clear it.
“This is your reward for a great season, and if you don’t treat is that way, you’re making a mistake,” he said. “These journeys just don’t automatically come, so we’re very excited to be here. We’re here to enjoy it, celebrate an incredible season and an incredible run, and to try to win a championship.”
They’ve already come a long way from that day on the beach.