Commentary

Huskies fight through absence

With Calhoun out, UConn still rolls in first round

Updated: March 20, 2009, 6:17 PM ET
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- They crowded around the disembodied voice coming from the speakerphone parked next to the chalkboard and listened.

Even when he wasn't there in person, Jim Calhoun had his team's undivided attention.

[+] EnlargeGeorge Blaney
Howard Smith/US PresswireIt's easy for George Blaney to smile after a 56-point win.

To outsiders, Calhoun is a gruff, chronically displeased Irishman.

To his players, he is the gruff, hard-to-please Irishman whose ceaseless demands make them better, stronger and tougher.

So when the Huskies learned that Calhoun, hospitalized with an undisclosed illness, wouldn't make their first-round game against Chattanooga, they did what they knew their coach would want them to do -- they played their tails off.

A day after Calhoun lamented that UConn was still searching for the swagger it lost when Jerome Dyson went down with a season-ending injury, the Huskies swaggered their way all over the court, mopping up the Mocs, 103-47.

"He's a fighter," Jeff Adrien said. "It's that simple. He's a fighter, and basically that's who we are. He pushes us to go to the next level, to go higher and higher and expect more and more from ourselves, because that's what he does. He expects that out of himself. He's going to keep on fighting, so we're going to keep on fighting."

On this day, they had to fight without him.

Calhoun never made it to the Wachovia Center on Thursday, shut down by UConn director of sports medicine Dr. Jeff Anderson, who said in a statement that the coach "had not been feeling well for the past several days."

A source told ESPN.com that Calhoun was suffering from dehydration.

After the game, the school released a statement from Calhoun. The coach said he stayed at the team hotel through the morning but, at Anderson's suggestion, went to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania for tests later in the afternoon.

"Fortunately those tests have all gone well and I am feeling much better," Calhoun said. "I will stay the night as a precaution and anticipate being checked again in the morning and being able to leave the hospital at that time."

The university did not say whether Calhoun would be back for UConn's second-round game against Texas A&M on Saturday, but after listening to his talk to the team via speakerphone and speaking to him privately, A.J. Price believed that he would.

"I'm definitely optimistic that he'll be back," the senior guard said.

The Huskies were in dire need of some optimism and ironically might have found it at their most vulnerable moment.

In the span of one week, the Huskies lost the Big East regular-season crown with a loss at Pitt and lost a shot at the Big East tournament title in a demoralizing six-overtime defeat against Syracuse. Piling on the loss of Dyson, Connecticut quickly was becoming the Job of hoops.

A week before Selection Sunday, the Huskies were the No. 1 team in the nation. When the brackets were announced, they squeaked in as a top seed, with plenty of critics debating their merit.

We definitely have our swagger back. Oh yeah, it's back.

-- UConn's Stanley Robinson

Then came the final dagger.

Associate head coach George Blaney was getting ready to leave the hotel to scout the Texas A&M-Brigham Young game when Calhoun called him to tell him he might not coach.

By the time Anderson decided to bench Calhoun, Blaney and the team already were in the arena. Most of the players were in the stands watching the Aggies and Cougars or in the locker room.

Kemba Walker saw a televised report, and Hasheem Thabeet, sitting behind a basket, learned from a friend.

"My friend sent me a text message asking me, 'What's up with your coach?"' Thabeet said. "I was like, 'What are you talking about?' I went back in the locker room, and A.J. told me."

Calhoun has battled myriad health issues in his career -- prostate cancer in 2003 and two bouts with skin cancer, most recently this past summer -- so when word first spread that he would be missing the game, there was more than just a blip of worry.

"At first, there was some shock," Adrien said. "I mean, you know what he's been through."

Reassured by Blaney that this was nothing serious -- Calhoun's son, Jeff, was at the arena for the early games, something he said he never would have done if his father were in any real jeopardy -- the Huskies borrowed their no-nonsense coach's approach while handling the news.

There was no "Win one for the Gipper" speech, no team meeting or giving way to overwrought emotion.

The Huskies just played.

After toying with the Mocs for eight minutes and clinging to a 17-15 advantage, UConn went on a 31-5 sprint to finish the half and turn the game into a laugher.

[+] EnlargeStanley Robinson
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesIt wasn't long before Stanley Robinson and UConn pulled away from the Mocs.

Chattanooga shot 26 percent from the floor, 20 percent from behind the arc, and coughed up 19 turnovers.

This looked like the UConn team that looked unbeatable in February, albeit with a more laid-back man at the helm.

"It was different," Walker said. "He's a different kind of coach than Coach Calhoun, but Coach had prepared us so well for this game. We were ready."

Blaney, who did tours as a head coach at Holy Cross and Seton Hall, didn't have to work too hard.

"How tough is it on me?" Blaney said. "We've got a team that's been ranked No. 1 in the country. We won 27 games. We're in a gym. We're playing a game. This is fun."

It is fun again for the Huskies, too.

By simply winning a game, UConn erased the criticism that has been dogging it for two years. In 2007, the Huskies didn't make the NCAA tournament, ending the season with a first-round loss to Syracuse in the Big East tournament. In 2008, West Virginia knocked them out in New York and San Diego booted them from the NCAA tournament.

"We definitely have our swagger back," Stanley Robinson said. "Oh yeah, it's back."

The question now is whether Calhoun will be. Blaney said that they hadn't had that conversation but that he is "assuming" Calhoun will be back on the sideline by Saturday.

But if history is any indicator, maybe the Huskies can twist Calhoun's illness in their favor.

Calhoun has missed 21 games in his career at Connecticut, including two previous NCAA tournament games. He missed the second half of the second-round game against DePaul in 1999 and the entire first-round game against Texas-San Antonio in 2004.

In 1999, UConn won the national championship.

In 2004, UConn won another national championship.

"Really?" Thabeet said. "Wow. I didn't know that. Hmm. Maybe it's a strategy."

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

Dana O'Neil | email

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