Toughness shows as defense plays well

Originally Published: January 5, 2004
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

STORRS, Conn. -- Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun has been getting on his players during practice for nearly a month now to increase their toughness.

He doesn't want to see complacency. So, every practice, he tries to toughen the team up, imploring his assistants to do the same.

The tough-love approach obviously is working.

Early Sunday evening, the only players Calhoun could rail on in the postgame locker room were the walk-ons.

Oklahoma outscored them 17-4. The rest of the Huskies outscored Oklahoma 82-42. The final score was 86-59, but for all intents and purposes, this was a 40-point game.

"I had to yell at someone,'' Calhoun said. "So, I got on the walk-ons. I didn't want them [the Huskies] to feel comfortable. But we were very, very good, and we showed things of what we can be.''

How about what they are.

The Huskies finally are as good as advertised, possessing the best starting five in the country when they play as seamlessly as they did Sunday. And they might be one of the top defensive teams in the country if they can anchor Emeka Okafor (nine of the team's 11 blocks and eight of the team's 36 defensive rebounds) in the post and funnel an opposing offense into him as well as they did Sunday.

This win was a scary indication of what could be a magnificent run by the Huskies.

Only five days earlier, top-rated Connecticut escaped with a one-point win at Rutgers.

Rutgers isn't in the same class as No. 7 Oklahoma, but that game showed that the Huskies weren't infallible.

Sunday, however, the Huskies were nearly perfect. Connecticut should hold on to a snapshot of this game and hope that it doesn't need to take another picture.

"When good players struggle to get their shot off and a good program that runs good offense (can't), then you know you've done great things,'' Calhoun said.

Oklahoma made only two of its first 15 shots inside the 3-point line. At one point in the second half, Oklahoma was 10-for-50 overall, 7-of-33 on shots inside the 3-point line.

"They were forcing us to the hole, and we were going all the way instead of jump-stopping and making the extra play,'' Oklahoma senior guard Jason Detrick said. "We tried to shoot over (Emeka) Okafor, [Josh] Boone, or [Charlie] Villanueva. They were baiting us, and we bit.''

Oklahoma was too predictable. The Sooners tried to get inside. Then they would take one shot that, if it wasn't blocked, was disrupted.

On one play Johnnie Gilbert tried to spin on Villanueva. Villanueva tipped the ball loose, and Rashad Anderson made a transition 3-pointer at the other end.

On another, Taliek Brown picked Detrick clean near midcourt. He wasn't able to finish at the other end, but he sent a message, finishing with five steals. Okafor followed one of his blocks with a feed to a streaking Brown for a layup at the other end.

The transition offense was just as lethal. Early in the first half, Gilbert missed a dunk. Ben Gordon grabbed the long rebound and passed ahead to Okafor for a slam.

"Okafor is a one-man zone,'' Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson said. "You can gamble and overpressure up front (if you're the Huskies) because if they get beat, it's hard to score at the rim on them. There's nobody else like him.

"Until you see (Connecticut) up close and personal, you don't know how fast they are,'' Sampson said. "I like their team because they fit. Taliek Brown isn't going to beat you from behind the line, but he doesn't try to. Okafor is a star, but doesn't play like one. He plays like it's his last game. I respect that. They impose their transition game on you. Let's face it. Connecticut is better than we are. Had we won, it would have been a huge upset. Talent doesn't win games on the road, toughness does.''

Calhoun and his staff have done a remarkable job of getting this team to buy into the team concept of defense. Okafor came ready-made to defend. Brown has built himself into a solid on-the-ball defender. Boone is learning fast from Okafor. Denham Brown is playing just as unselfishly on the defensive end, too. But Calhoun said they had to get Anderson to understand that defense is important. Villanueva's learning curve has simply been faster than anyone thought.

It helps that they funnel everything defensively through Okafor. "This is the best defense we've played this year,'' Okafor said. "Simple, right?''

There was nothing magical here. Connecticut's defense was good, very good. This win proved that the Huskies have remained hungry and humble.

The loss to Georgia Tech in New York and the near-miss at Rutgers have contributed to that. The players proved to Calhoun that they still had pride two nights after losing to the Yellow Jackets by soundly beating Utah (76-44) in the consolation game of the Preseason NIT in New York on Nov. 28.

"We really took umbrage that Georgia Tech handled us,'' Calhoun said. "But we bounced back. And Ben is becoming a great leader for us.''

Calhoun threw in that thought for a reason. The good vibes from this squad are starting to blend together. When Brown zipped a pass to Okafor for a dunk and foul, Gordon chest-bumped Okafor, an uncharacteristically gleeful move between the two.

Sampson muttered that the Sooners are still in search of an identity and lack a go-to scorer in the halfcourt on the eve of their Big 12 opener at Oklahoma State on Wednesday. Connecticut has no such problem and, knowing exactly who it is, can prepare to play Georgetown, at North Carolina and Pittsburgh in the next week.

The Huskies' offense begins with Gordon from the perimeter. Okafor anchors the defense inside. The players around both of them are talented, selfless, and cohesive enough to make everything fit rather nicely.

"We've got a chance,'' said Calhoun, referring to the national title. "We've got a lot of parts. On this given day, we were as good as anybody.''

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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