Champs finding it hard to focus
HARTFORD, Conn. -- No blueprint exists for a coaching staff, a team and a university on how to deal with a player and fellow student-athlete lying in the neurological intensive care unit, battling the potentially life-threatening effects of an intracranial hemorrhage.
So, it is with this dark cloud hanging over the program that Connecticut begins its quest to defend its national title when practice opens Friday night with Midnight Madness.
The prognosis for Connecticut freshman point guard A.J. Price is unknown, but the family released a statement Tuesday night saying he was "responding to therapy and is slowly showing improvement."
There is no timetable, however, for his release from ICU, let alone Hartford Hospital. Playing basketball isn't a topic for discussion. Going back to school isn't talked about, either. All the Price and Connecticut families and the university want at this point is to see him move out of the ICU and begin the process of a full recovery that will allow him to leave the hospital in the near future.
"I don't care if he ever plays basketball again," said Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun on Tuesday night at a prearranged scheduled dinner in downtown Hartford for boosters who support his charitable summer golf tournament.
"That's not what we care about," Calhoun said. "Our goal is for him to get out of the ICU so the whole team could see him."
All but one day since Oct. 4, Calhoun has gone to the hospital to sit with Price's parents, who have been here from their hometown in Amityville, N.Y., and sometimes with A.J. The players aren't allowed to come to the hospital with visitation limitations in the ICU.
"It's like he's been living there," assistant coach George Blaney said of Calhoun.
Calhoun looks understandably worn. Price's sudden and unexplainable illness has the whole program in a state of shock.
Price came down with flu-like symptoms on Sept. 29. Three days later he had a headache that wouldn't go away. Team medical officials sent him for a CAT scan on Oct. 4, where the hemorrhage was discovered. He was flown by helicopter from Windham to Hartford Hospital. He actually walked in on his own to get the CAT scan.
"The next thing we know, he had an intracranial hemorrhage," Calhoun said. "Since then, it has been nine days of hills and valleys and now, thank God, we're seeing some response."
Price, who celebrated his 18th birthday last Thursday, had a pulmonary setback along the way, according to Calhoun. But he is conscious and responsive. No further details are being released and the family is asking for privacy as he continues his recovery.
"It could be weeks (before he's out of the hospital)," Calhoun said. "He's young and he has shown improvement over the last few days. By the weekend, we'll know a lot more, since it would be 10 or 11 days out from the original incident. He was talking about the players (at Connecticut) and how the Yankees got (to the ALCS). He's tired and given what he's been through he's slowly improving."
Throughout this whole ordeal, Calhoun and his staff have had to try and prepare for the season. They still went on their coaches' retreat to the Mohegan Sun last weekend at the urging of the Price family, who wanted some sort of normalcy for the team.
Calhoun and the staff said they almost felt guilty that they were going over how they want to practice, who would be in what roles and even what drills they would start practice with this weekend.
"I found myself drifting a bit," Calhoun said. "This is on our watch. His folks entrusted him here. I had nothing to do with it, none of us did. It was fate or whatever or bad luck. Regardless, it doesn't take away the responsibility you feel."
But the staff and the team have to deal with the reality. Price is in the ICU and he won't be playing basketball this season, barring a sudden change of events. The reality is the Huskies penciled in Price as the backup point guard to sophomore Marcus Williams. Price, who averaged 25.4 points a game at Amityville High, also was one of the better shooters on the squad.
The Huskies are looking for another point guard on campus to be a walk-on for practice. More importantly, they have to get freshman shooting guard (and Price roommate) Antonio Kellogg to learn the point over the next three weeks.
"One of the guys we thought would make shots for us was A.J., but the plan we have right now is to make Antonio into a point guard," Calhoun said.
The Huskies will play what amounts to six exhibition games to get Kellogg comfortable. They will play the NCAA-allowed two exhibitions but also will play four "exhibition" games when they travel to London, England, over Thanksgiving week.
The rest of the pieces are in place for the Huskies to make a Final Four run.
"We do have as good a frontline as any team in the country," Calhoun said of all-Big East rookie team selections Josh Boone (5.9 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 1.7 bpg) and Charlie Villanueva (8.9 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 1.5 bpg), former ACC rookie of the year Ed Nelson (a Georgia Tech transfer) and role players Hilton Armstrong (2.8 rpg) and Marcus White, who missed all but four games last season with a back injury.
The rest of the backcourt is extremely solid, with Rashad Anderson the likely starter at shooting guard after averaging 17.3 points and shooting 48.8 percent on 3s in the NCAA Tournament. The streaky Denham Brown (8.9 ppg, 39 percent on 3s) will start at small forward, although potential national freshman of the year Rudy Gay could push him out of the starting lineup by January.
"We still have the components to be a good team, but we'll look different," Calhoun said.
A booster asked Calhoun Tuesday night who would get the ball during a breakdown situation with 20 seconds left in the game. The answer was likely Williams, who emerged as the team's leader in September pickup games, despite being academically ineligible for the second semester after backing up Taliek Brown with 69 assists and 38 turnovers for the first 16 games last season.
But the go-to player late in the game could change if Gay develops as expected.
"He's a special player," Calhoun said of the 6-9 Gay, who could be another stellar wing following the path of Ray Allen, Richard Hamilton, Caron Butler and Ben Gordon to the NBA prior to his senior season.
"Practice should be really intense and Denham won't give up that easy," Calhoun said. "We're going to need Antonio to keep Marcus out of foul trouble. With A.J., we were a complete outside-inside team. Last year, I knew we could win the national title because when I looked at our team we couldn't be pressed, we had good shooters and I knew we would defend the hell out of you.
"I still think we're a tough out, but I know there are some things we have to get through," Calhoun said. "Our teams always get better late in the year."
Before Calhoun talked to the assembled boosters Tuesday night, he had the fans give the Price family a standing ovation. When the night was over, he embraced the Prices before they left to go back to their hotel. Calhoun said he would be by the hospital Wednesday. He said he would continue to pray each day.
"The kids are caught in a tough place because they're so close to A.J.," Calhoun said. "He and Rudy are tight and Antonio is his roommate. We're going to have a talk with the kids (Wednesday after the Husky Run on campus) and talk about everything."
Calhoun said the Price family told him to stay with the team, "because they said they need the season to be good."
"They have made this easier on me," Calhoun said.
The season will begin Friday night while Price continues his fight to recover.
The offseason has been incredibly rocky with the departure of assistant coach Clyde Vaughan after he was arrested for solicitation. The Huskies weathered that when Vaughan resigned and Calhoun then promoted former player Andre LaFleur and added Patrick Sellers in LaFleur's spot of director of basketball operations. Getting through Price's illness isn't comparable, but the team, the program, the athletic department and those invested in this sport at the university are staying together.
"God willing," Calhoun said. "A.J. will step out of the hospital soon."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.