Okay it wasn’t easy on the eyes. You probably will not look at the replay of it unless you are showing a young team the nuances of team defense. But when all is said and done, no one is going to remember that this was one of the more offensively challenged basketball games since the peach basket era. We are going to remember UCONN’s, 53-41, victory over Butler as the game that put Jim Calhoun’s program among elite company in college basketball.
This has been the worst of times for Jim Calhoun and the Huskies Nation and the best of times simultaneously. They started off with a 17-2 record, including knocking off four top 10 teams. Then Calhoun lost one of his best friends and sister-in-law both to cancer during the season and, finally, the program was hit with NCAA sanctions for some recruiting improprieties. For Calhoun to end this season cutting down the nets winning his third National Title is nothing short of a miracle. Calhoun now joins John Wooden, Adolph Rupp, Mike Krzyzewski and Bobby Knight as the only coaches in NCAA history to win three or more titles.
If you look at all of the powerhouse squads that Calhoun has coached over the years, this has been his best body of work. He won this title with one bona fide superstar and a collection of talented but unproven underclassmen. Kemba Walker was that superstar who carried this team on his back early in the season and then willed freshmen Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier and sophomore Alex Oriakhi to raise their games as the season went along. I saw them get waxed by St John’s back in February and there was no way you could have convinced me at that time that UCONN would be the last team standing at the end of the season. But here we are watching Kemba and the Kids being hailed as the nation’s top dogs.
Walker had one of the best tourney runs ever. He averaged over 23 points per game and consistently found his younger teammates
for easy baskets when the opposition tried to take him out of the game. But what impressed me most throughout the Big East Tournament and the NCAAs were his defense and rebounding. He was putting up Oscar Robertson-like numbers throughout the post season. In the championship game, he pulled down 9 rebounds while scoring a modest 16 points. After going scoreless in the first half, Lamb erupted for 12 points and pulled down 7 rebounds himself. Lamb and Kemba, the Final Four Most Outstanding Player, will get most of the props for this win but Oriakhi had perhaps the best game of anyone, scoring 11 points, pulling down 11 rebounds and blocking 4 shots.
The Huskies did not provide us with that many offensive highlights. They won this game with defense. They put on a defensive clinic Monday night. Butler had very few open shots and when they did get a couple of good looks, the Bulldogs rushed their shots. The Huskies’ length bothered Butler from beginning to end, as they blocked 10 shots during the course of the game. It got so bad that the Bulldogs missed easy layups worrying that one of UCONN’s big’s was lurking behind them. Napier and Lamb took turns shutting down Butler’s high scoring guard Shelvin Mack. UCONN held Butler to 18.8% shooting for the night. The Huskies dominated Butler on the boards, out rebounding the smaller Bulldogs by 11. Analysts were saying that Butler had an off night shooting. No, they fell victim to one of the more impressive displays of defense we have seen in quite some time. Butler played some great defense of their own but they have not seen real team defense until they went up against UCONN.
Jim Calhoun really loved coaching this team. He must have really liked these young guys because he did not rip into them as much when they made mistakes. He became a kinder, gentler coach in his old age. “I really needed this team,” the old gruff coach told reporters in the post game press conference. Everybody within the sound of his voice knew what he meant. No explanation was needed. Kemba and the Kids helped him get through a very difficult period in his life. They gave Calhoun more than a title, they inspired the old ball coach. Who says you can’t teach an old dog, in this case a Husky, new tricks?
Unless you were rooting for UCONN, you could not have been satisfied with what you were subjected to on Monday. But for the Husky Nation, that game was as lovely as any rose that will bloom in the upcoming weeks.