Calhoun's many moods are Sweet 16 bound
PHILADELPHIA -- Anybody with a degree in UConn-ology knows how to read the sideline body language of Huskies coach Jim Calhoun.
Happy Jim: Stomps heels of expensive loafers on court floor ... sears the inner ear canals of any referee who ventures near him ... hitches up suit pants while pacing in front of bench ... crosses arms in disgust ... stares brick-sized holes through his players ... turns to officials seated near end of scoring table and performs the one-man play, "Why Is This Happening To Me?"
Steamed Jim: Ignores refs ... has running dialogue with assistant coaches ... turns sarcasm level to DefCon 4 ... hugs opposing coach after a Connecticut win, even if he's never met opposing coach.
We got Happy Jim during the Huskies' 87-83 victory against Kentucky on Sunday at the Wachovia Center. You'd be happy, too, if your top-seeded team advanced to its fourth Sweet 16 in the past five seasons -- and beat a program with the pedigree of Kentucky's to get there.
The NCAA selection committee made the 12-loss Wildcats a No. 8 seed (it's lowest seeding in nearly 20 years), but Kentucky didn't play like it. Led by a dinky point guard with a twang as thick as a lump of coal, the Wildcats almost added to the Washington Regional Upset Festival.
Instead, UConn survived -- again -- which is more than you can say for the other D.C. big-name seeds. No. 2 Tennessee? Shocked. No. 3 North Carolina? George Mason'd. No. 4 Illinois. U-Drubbed.
"I like being [Sweet] 16," Calhoun said. "I'm glad this team got back there, because I love this team."
Calhoun wasn't sending love notes to the Huskies a few nights ago, when UConn trailed 16th-seeded Albany by double digits. UConn made like Secret Service agents in those final 10 minutes and wrestled Albany to the ground. But afterward, Steamed Jim proclaimed, "I think I witnessed our poorest offensive effort in close to 20 years."
Sunday was different. The Huskies were different. Nobody confused them with Belmont this time.
"A team that's very capable of winning it all," is the way Kentucky coach Tubby Smith described UConn.
He's right, of course. The Huskies go 40 deep, play so far above the rim they need heat tiles to re-enter the earth's atmosphere, and they have that lethal tournament mixture of experience, Hall of Fame coaching, and Did-You-See-That? talent. They needed all of it against little Albany (Calhoun was so impressed with the Great Danes that he hugged Albany coach Will Brown at game's end), and again in the program's first-ever meeting against storied Big Blue.
The difference, though, was UConn didn't take anything for granted this time. The Huskies played as if they'd have to walk back to the Storrs campus if they lost this one.
"The only thing on my mind was D.C.," said UConn point guard Marcus Williams, who scored 20 against Kentucky and 21 against Albany, nearly double his season average.
No team arrives for the regional semis with a better chance to win a Final Four than UConn. That's nice for everyone who picked the Huskies in their office pools, but it won't mean much to UConn's next opponent, fifth-seeded Washington. All they've done is beat Utah State and Illinois, which reached the championship game a season ago.
What they can do is pretend they're playing Kentucky again. That's the UConn team that made Calhoun into Happy Jim. He gushed about Williams. He hugged sophomore forward Rudy Gay. He backslapped senior bruiser Ed Nelson. Isn't life wonderful?
"I still think we can beat anybody in America," Calhoun said.
They can. And as Calhoun also noted, his fragile and occasionally tentative team (his words, not mine) can lose to anybody remaining in the tournament.
Kentucky came close, playing arguably its best game of a mostly forgettable season (for spoiled Wildcat fans, that is). Senior guard Patrick Sparks, who apparently raided the "White Men Can't Jump" wardrobe closet (knee-high support hose-looking socks, blue T-shirt, barber college haircut) is the one most responsible for the close call. He tied a single-game career high with 28 points, which went along nicely with forward Bobby Perry's unexpected 20 points.
"He doesn't look athletic," UConn's Williams said of Sparks.
No, but he canned 10 of 16 shots, had as many rebounds as UConn forward Josh Boone, and had five steals. He could have done without the loss, but otherwise it was a nice way to end a college career.
"It just wasn't enough," he said.
Sparks, Perry, Smith and the rest of the Wildcats return to Lexington where UK followers will pick over the season wreckage for, I don't know, every waking moment of every day. Meanwhile, UConn moves forward, or more accurately, southward to D.C.
"There are no easy routes in this tournament," Happy Jim said.
No, there aren't. But at least the Huskies, just like the other three No. 1 seeds, are still on the road to Indy. And if we know anything about Calhoun, it's this: He knows how to read a Final Four map.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.
ESPN TOP HEADLINES
- Gibbs beats buzzer as Seton Hall stuns Nova
- Redskins sign Hatcher away from Cowboys
- Thunder fire back to rout Lakers in rematch
- Source: Pats talking with banned CB Browner