Commentary

Huskies coaches hunker down, talk strategy in bunker

Originally Published: October 16, 2008
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

STORRS, Conn. -- The Connecticut coaching staff calls their locker room the bunker.

It isn't much. It's cluttered, with some workout clothes strewn about, piles of soda and water boxes and an older television on a wheeled stand that looks like they took it from the audio/visual room shared by the biology and geology classes.

[+] EnlargeUConn Office
UConn The bunker might not be elite, but it's where the UConn staff does some of its best work.

Shoved over to the side is a circular wooden table, which seems like it would be a better fit in an elderly lady's living room as a station for hard candies than as the plans for the program's potential third national championship.

Five beat-up blue upholstered chairs that could use a good cleaning surround the table that UConn coach Jim Calhoun said was cracked after a fight years ago. He repaired it instead of throwing it out, since it had been with him since he arrived in Storrs in the mid-1980s. The chairs don't have nameplates. But they are assigned.

One clock hangs above the wall. It has two purposes: to remind the staff that practice is about to start, and to ensure that associate head coach George Blaney eats his sandwich at lunchtime.

For all the money earned by a program of this stature, this room doesn't scream elite. "I feel comfortable here,'' Calhoun said.

"I'm not sure how many Hall of Fame coaches would want to have meetings all day in a locker room," Blaney said.

A week ago, the staff held their annual staff retreat before the start of practice. The retreat is a bit more glamorous. A year ago it was at the Mohegan Sun Casino. Last week, the staff went to Newport, R.I., for two days. But, like the discussions that take place here in the bunker, the talk was all basketball.

On Tuesday, as they prepped for the start of Friday's official practice date and a real shot at challenging Louisville, Pitt and Notre Dame for the Big East title -- as well as North Carolina for the national title -- the Huskies' staff went through some final preparations for the marathon run to March.

The conversations were casual, as they apparently usually are, but the discussion was frank on:

• How they'll play this season with mostly a three-guard lineup.
• How much junior center Hasheem Thabeet is ready to dominate his position.
• How important it is that senior Jeff Adrien understands his role as a role player.
• How much midseason additions (junior Stanley Robinson and freshman Ater Majok) will help elevate this team.

"Coach wants to hear what everyone has to say, and then he gets it down to one, two, three or four points and tells the team, 'Here's what we're going to do.' Sometimes these meetings have lasted 30 minutes, and sometimes five hours,'' Blaney said. "Everyone comes through here, from the academic advisor to the AD to pro scouts. It's all in the bunker.''

Staffers prepared a video for the retreat last week that focused on the Huskies' early offense. They get 35 percent of their baskets from early looks. That means one or two passes and to the hoop.

A year ago, the three-guard rotation was A.J. Price, Jerome Dyson and Doug Wiggins, with Craig Austrie as the fourth guard. Price is back from a torn ACL suffered during the first-round NCAA tournament loss to San Diego last year. But the Huskies have a huge upgrade over Wiggins -- who transferred to UMass -- in Kemba Walker. Walker could be the Big East Rookie of the Year. He was named MVP of the FIBA U-18 tournament in Argentina, where he played for the U.S. last July. "We want to get into our offense without running plays,'' Blaney said. "If Kemba gets the first pass, he's going to push it.''

The conversation among the assistants is always free-flowing in the bunker. "A.J. and Kemba have a real good feel,'' assistant Patrick Sellers said. "They just go and play basketball.''

[+] EnlargeJim Calhoun
Mitchell Layton/Getty ImagesJim Calhoun has a team that's primed for a national championship run this season.

"Coach [Calhoun] wants his bigs to go right to the rim [for offensive putbacks],'' Blaney said, motioning to the tape as Thabeet trailed a play. "That's what Hasheem is doing here."

"You're going to see more dribble screens, dribble handoffs with three guards and getting the ball to the middle as much as you can,'' Blaney said of the three-guard lineup. "The reason our guys do so well in the pros is that they know how to pick-and-roll and come off screens and know how to do pro stuff in the post and score inside.''

After watching the tape and listening to the staff Tuesday, it is obvious that Price, Dyson and Walker will have the green light to take their defender off the dribble as much as possible. They will look to score quickly off one pass, maybe two, when applicable. The Huskies expect these three -- as well as Austrie, when the senior guard is in the game -- to push the tempo at every opportunity.

Blaney and Sellers said the Huskies have about 20 to 25 plays in the book, but may only run five or six, and sometimes two or three back-to-back possessions or within the same possession. "Everyone knows our plays,'' Sellers said.

"[Calhoun] hands them out at clinics,'' Blaney said.

"[Calhoun] doesn't want robots; he wants basketball players,'' Sellers said.

Thabeet could have been put in the Wall-E category as a freshman. The 7-foot-3 center from Tanzania had a hard time staying upright. He averaged a half-dozen points and rebounds, but had more fouls (82) than field goals (67), despite his 119 blocks.

"It would be as if you put me on a soccer field and didn't tell me how to play and expected me to know,'' said Sellers about Thabeet's knowledge of the game after playing briefly in the U.S. before coming to UConn. "Every day after practice last year, he would take two heavy balls, hold them and work on his balance.''

Thabeet improved a year ago, scoring 10.5 points and grabbing 7.9 boards. He had 86 fouls, made more free throws (118 to 59 the previous year) and played more minutes (31 to 24.6) as well as blocking 147 shots.

On the video shown to the staff, Thabeet still had a few offensive plays in the post where he tried to go to the right or left of the rim. He dunked more often last season. But throughout the summer, while working at the Nike LeBron Skills Academy in Akron, or on campus, Thabeet is thinking dunk first, and deal with the contact second.

And he's not falling down. "He's still a baby offensively,'' Blaney said, sitting at the table in the bunker. "He's going to have some big-time games offensively. He knows how to dominate a game defensively, but he's learning how to dominate games by running, screening harder, posting more and making foul shots.''

Last spring, Calhoun told Thabeet if he wanted to leave for the NBA, he wouldn't stop him. But Calhoun also told him he wasn't ready. That he needed three years of college, because as soon as he got to the NBA, if he wasn't ready to play, the NBA scouts would be sent out to look for someone else. "He needed to be here,'' said Calhoun, who isn't sure he's seen another player improve as much during his three-decade coaching career as much as Thabeet has.

The conversation shifts to Adrien. The hope is that he doesn't try to pull a Kevin Freeman. Freeman was a rock for the Huskies when they won their first national title in 1999. He knew his role. He wasn't the star. Richard Hamilton was the stud on that team. But Calhoun said Freeman was convinced he had to develop a jump shot to make the NBA. He's hoping Adrien isn't focused on the same misguided goal.

"Jeff thinks he's a stud, and that's his biggest problem,'' Calhoun said. "He could have 1,000 rebounds for the first time for me in 23 years here. Jeff is a tremendous role player with star-type stats. Not a good screener or passer, but he has to be like [former Cincinnati forward and current Detroit Piston] Jason Maxiell and block shots and rebound. That's my quest.''

Adrien, a lock at power forward on this team, Thabeet at center and the three guards -- Dyson, Price and Walker -- make up one of the most talented starting fives in the country, perhaps second only to North Carolina's first unit.

Coach wants to hear what everyone has to say and then he gets it down to one, two, three or four points and tells the team, 'Here's what we're going to do.' Sometimes these meetings have lasted 30 minutes, and sometimes five hours. Everyone comes through here, from the academic advisor to the AD to pro scouts. It's all in the bunker.

-- Associate head coach George Blaney

But help is coming at small forward to change things up a bit in mid-December. The Huskies are without Nate Miles, whom the staff privately says was the team's top offensive threat, after he was expelled from school for violating a restraining order by telephoning a female student within 20 minutes of the edict.

Meanwhile, Robinson is currently working at Prime Materials in Willimantic, Conn., stacking copper. Calhoun said the 6-foot-9 junior applied and received redshirt status for the spring semester and is taking a mid-term exception out of school for the fall to deal with personal issues. Robinson played in all 33 games last season, but after the season had problems.

"He is NCAA-eligible, and he could play right now but we decided that he never had time last spring for him to do what he needed to do,'' Calhoun said. "He's working from 7 to 3:30 p.m. picking up copper, a tough physical job, and he comes here at 4:30 p.m. to work out. As far as we're concerned, we're 90 percent sure he'll be with us on Dec. 14 after final exams and eligible to play against Stony Brook [Dec. 15] and then Gonzaga [Dec. 20 in Seattle].''

Blaney said he's not worried about Robinson adjusting since he's not a new player.

Majok will be. But there isn't any concern about his learning curve. "There's our head of recruiting, Andre LaFleur, he's got all of his paperwork,'' Calhoun said.

LaFleur sat at the table with a thick binder that was filled with Majok's forms. He's an Australian, and any international player has loads of paperwork to sift through to become eligible.

Calhoun said the Huskies would have to be doing exceptionally well for them to redshirt Majok. He's too good. "He's one of the best big men in the country coming to college,'' LaFleur said of the 6-10 forward. "He put his hands up against Hasheem and has nearly the same reach. He's long and very skilled.''

The Huskies had a one-hour practice slated for 4:30 p.m. Tuesday. The staff had had their fill of meeting time. It was time to go. Calhoun -- who still has a shorter haircut from his radiation treatment following his latest bout with skin cancer -- looks good, says he feels good, and is as passionate as ever about coaching this team. "We come in here all the time, after games, too,'' he said.

This is where Calhoun does some of his best work, crafting how he's going to coach. It's where the Huskies' national title runs were hatched, maybe another one this season, too.

Blaney's thought for Tuesday was: "Play at a Championship Pace.''

Sellers echoed that getting players to play hard is one of the most difficult things in coaching. This isn't a program that focuses on footwork. They want their players to just play. There is no secret technique. As Blaney said, Calhoun is going to motivate as much as teach. But he formulates his thoughts mostly right here, in the bunker, a coaching locker room that has been his haven of ideas for 23 years.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com