Calhoun looking to "validate" his players, team this season
STORRS, Conn. -- Connecticut was 11-0. The Huskies looked like a team headed toward the postseason.
But it was fraudulent. It came against an easy nonconference schedule that featured just one game against a major-conference opponent (and that was Mississippi, a team at the bottom of the SEC). The staff had an idea that all wasn't right when UConn entered Big East play at the end of December with an unblemished record. Still, they had no inkling that the Huskies would win just six more games and not even get a sniff from the NIT.
"Generally speaking, no one ever knew what their role was," UConn's Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun said. "We kept trying to solve our problems like we do at UConn -- with replacements and putting pressure on you and putting your ass on the bench. Too many guys were going through the same thing and it escalated. And at times, we became a team that didn't have a sense of 'OK this is my job and I understand it.' We never got a rotation or roles."
So now, on the verge of the start of the 2007-08 season with essentially the same team returning, Calhoun still doesn't have all the answers as to what went awry last season.
"I thought after we beat Mississippi (on Nov. 19, 2006, to start 4-0) that we would be pretty good," he said. "I had no reason to believe we wouldn't be pretty good. But the psychological make-up of our team wasn't what it needed to be, and I don't know why. I still don't know why.
"That's the only thing I can't tell you. I can tell you the confusion. I can tell you the youth. I can tell you, in fairness to the kids, the lack of definition of where I'm going to play [them] became hard. The worst thing you want is a kid going out there confused about what he's supposed to do."
Added Calhoun, "The fact is when times got tough, we didn't know what to do."
Sitting in his spacious office this week, Calhoun reflected back on his most challenging season to date and, perhaps, his most anticipated season.
Calhoun isn't one to sit idle. The 65-year-old coach hasn't stopped thinking about the 17-14 season since March 7 when the Huskies' season ended with a loss to Syracuse in the Big East tournament. He lost his top recruiter in Tom Moore to the head coaching position at Quinnipiac and has been working even harder to be hands-on in recruiting over the spring and summer. But more than anything, he has been thinking about what went wrong, how to fix it and how this season should be projected?
Last season, the Huskies were coming off an Elite 8 loss to George Mason and endured a mass defection after the game. Rudy Gay, Marcus Williams and Josh Boone left early for the NBA. Rashad Anderson, Denham Brown and Hilton Armstrong were seniors and ran out of eligibility.
I don't have to validate my coaching, but we do have a point to prove that these kids we think are very good. We have a point to prove, that we're back to competing in the Big East and if we do that, the rest will take care of itself.
Calhoun said last week that two weeks after Gay declared for the draft, he called and wanted to return. But he said Gay had already severed ties academically and couldn't return. Calhoun also said Boone shouldn't have declared and believes that even more so after Boone had an injury-riddled rookie season and struggled to find an offensive game. He said Nets general manager Rod Thorn told him the team was still waiting for that offensive game to develop. Calhoun said Boone would have been the go-to player in the post for the Huskies last season and another season would have made him a more prepared pro.
"Rudy would have made a difference last year and he might have been the player of the year," Calhoun said. "We just needed one player that had been there before."
That's why Calhoun doesn't buy the argument that the Huskies were akin to the 2006 North Carolina Tar Heels who were devoid of their core after winning the title the previous season. That Carolina team had a star freshman in Tyler Hansbrough and veteran, tough players in David Noel and Reyshawn Terry to get them over the hump and eventually back to the NCAA Tournament (where they ironically also lost to Mason in the NCAAs).
What irked Calhoun even more was that he wasn't the only one who questioned the toughness of his team. He said that Harlem Globetrotters owner Manny Jackson told him at the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies last month that "it's the first time he's seen a Connecticut team with no swagger whatsoever."
The Huskies had only two returning players with even marginal playing time: point guard Craig Austrie (who started before Williams was eligible at mid-season) and Jeff Adrien (a role player behind Boone and Armstrong).
"I don't advise anybody to start out with nine new players," Calhoun said.
The main problem for Calhoun was misevaluating point guard A.J. Price. He said he wrongly assumed that Price would be the player he recruited prior to Price's brain hemorrhage due to a condition called AVM (arteriovenous malformation, which is defined as an abnormal collection of blood vessels). Price missed the 2004-05 season as a result of that ailment, and then he missed the 2005-06 season because he was not cleared medically and then was suspended for his role in stealing laptops on campus.
So, Price was out for two full seasons when he took over the point guard role last year. But Calhoun was so confident in his former McDonald's All-American that he touted Price as a possible NBA pick the next spring.
Here's a quick look at Connecticut's recent success:2006-07 17-14 overall (6-10 Big East)
2005-06 30-4 (14-2), NCAA Elite 8
2004-05 23-8 (13-3), NCAA second round
2003-04 33-6 (12-4), NCAA champions
2002-03 23-10 (10-6), NCAA Sweet 16
2001-02 27-7 (13-3), NCAA Elite 8
"I relied on A.J."' Calhoun said. "I was in love with A.J. the player and still think I'm going to be. But I'm seeing it [last season] and I can't understand why he can't go be that guy. I think he can be at least a terrific player and if he is, then we're a different team."
Calhoun pointed to the loss at Louisville last season. He said the Huskies turned the ball over three times in a row. He took out Price and when he put him back in the game, "He wasn't the same player," and so for the rest of the game, "We didn't have an answer [for Louisville's pressure]."
Price struggled throughout last season, losing his starting position at times and yielding minutes to Doug Wiggins and Austrie. He averaged 9.4 points but had a too-close-for-comfort assist (3.6) to turnover (2.0) ratio of 1.79. He shot 27.3 percent on 3s. Now, Calhoun said Price is the team's most accurate shooter.
"I think today, yeah, the biggest misevaluation was I knew I needed a point guard and the vision of A.J. pre-AVM was in my mind all the time," Calhoun said. "Unfairly to him, he wasn't cleared until April . He didn't compete. He lost his legs. He couldn't dunk the ball last year. It took a year to get him back. Should I have gone to get a real point guard? Had I to do over again, yes I would."
Price wasn't the only culprit for Connecticut's struggles. Hasheem Thabeet, a 7-3 freshman from Tanzania, was promoted as a potential lottery pick after the season. The problem was Thabeet had more of an adjustment than anyone could have imagined. Sure, he still blocked 119 shots and helped UConn become the top field-goal percentage defensive team (37.1 percent) in the country.
Calhoun said Thabeet will be a dominating presence and a greater offensive threat this season. The lanky center averaged 6.4 points as a freshman.
Calhoun expects the same from Stanley Robinson. Calhoun said the staff kidded Robinson that it had three foreign players on the team -- Thabeet from Tanzania, Ben Eaves (who has since transferred) from England and Robinson from Alabama, because he had such a tough adjustment. Robinson had one game against Indiana in which he scored 21 points and grabbed nine boards, only to whiff in the scoring column in the very next game against Louisville.
"Stanley wasn't ready and never got the chance," Calhoun said of Robinson's showing how talented he can be on the court. "He'll be a completely different player this year."
UConn's only two reliable players throughout the season were guard Jerome Dyson (13.8 ppg and 32.6 percent 3-point shooting) and forward Adrien (13.1 ppg and 9.7 rpg).
But why should Connecticut be picked higher than the middle of the pack in the Big East if it's returning the same team?
"It's the same team that lost five in a row, the same team that once got to 11 [straight wins] and could only get six more wins, the exact same team," Calhoun said. "The key is do you think Stanley Robinson has talent? Do you think A.J. Price has talent? Do you think Dougie Wiggins has talent? Hasheem Thabeet? All of those guys never played [college basketball] before."
This season, Calhoun is going to take advantage of his great athletes and get his UConn team playing like previous Huskies teams. He wants his team to run the fast break, extend the floor and take advantage of athletic players such as Price, Dyson and Robinson.
Although Calhoun pointed to Louisville and Georgetown as the favorites in the Big East, he said he doesn't fear those two teams. And although he doesn't see UConn's competing for the national title next April, he's not ruling anything out and insists the Huskies can compete with anyone.
They can compete with anyone on the recruiting trail too. Calhoun didn't get Brandon Jennings, who eventually committed to Arizona. But Calhoun did find what he was looking for (at least a three-year point guard) in Kemba Walker out of the Bronx. The Huskies are in love with Walker's maturity at the position and his quickness. So, when he arrives in the fall of 2008, the Huskies will have an anchor at the position that has been unstable for the past few seasons.
Commitments like Walker are another indication that Calhoun isn't slowing down. Taking on a challenging schedule, like potentially playing Kentucky and Memphis in the Coaches vs. Cancer in New York City in November, is another example of Calhoun's wanting to test himself and this team.
"I don't have to validate my coaching, but we do have a point to prove that these kids we think are very good," Calhoun said. "We have a point to prove, that we're back to competing in the Big East and if we do that, the rest will take care of itself."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.