Jim Calhoun enjoying the ride
HOUSTON -- Winding through a lengthy answer to a question about Kemba Walker's leadership skills, Jim Calhoun was discussing how brief his actual interaction with his players is.
"I have the kids for two, two-and-a-half hours a day," he said.
No one snickered or even so much as arched an eyebrow, but Calhoun still hastily continued.
"I'll make sure it's only 20 hours a week, by the way," he said, alluding to the NCAA limit on practice hours. "I'm sorry. I lost myself. One of those things I've been used to for a while now."
He was joking, of course, but if you know Jim Calhoun even a little bit, you know that neither the aside nor the zinger was unintentional.
This has been a strange year for Calhoun, an emotional tornado for an emotional coach. He has been flogged publicly by the NCAA, charged with a failure to promote an atmosphere of compliance; yet he has done perhaps the most masterful coaching job of his career, cajoling and coaxing a team that relies on four freshmen to a national championship game.
On Monday night, he could find himself stride for stride with some of the game's best, joining Mike Krzyzewski, Bob Knight, John Wooden and Adolph Rupp as the only coaches to win three national championships.
Next season, he will have to miss UConn's first three Big East league games as part of his punishment handed down by the NCAA.
And so as an ebullient Calhoun met the media on the eve of his team's NCAA championship game appearance, he spent 85 percent of his time talking about Walker and his team and 15 percent answering questions about the NCAA investigation.
Yet the man who can be downright combative with the media elected for civility here.
"Have I made mistakes? Yes. Do I have warts? Yeah, I do, like all of you," Calhoun said. "But I know who I am and I'm comfortable with what I've done."
Have I made mistakes? Yes. Do I have warts? Yeah, I do, like all of you. But I know who I am and I'm comfortable with what I've done.
No, he hasn't mellowed. Calhoun still breathes fire from the sidelines and could wither a boulder with his stare.
During the Kentucky game, Calhoun at one point had to practically peel himself up from bended knee during a timeout, so emotionally into the game he was practically prone on the floor.
His players, in fact, think Calhoun in 2011 is more in keeping with the feisty coach they know and often feared, regaining some of the fire that the investigation and his own health sapped out of him last season.
"He's definitely different," Walker said. "Last season, he had the situation with his health, and all the investigation stuff, but now he's a lot more intense. He's gotten more back to the old guy he used to be."
What Calhoun seems is reflective. Maybe it's because he's weighing retirement more than ever before. Maybe it is, as he has said, that beating cancer three times puts a whole lot of things in perspective.
Or maybe it's because he's found a team that is so much like him. After a year that was so hard -- the Huskies missed the NCAA tournament and Calhoun could never find the right button to push -- he has found a season of pure joy, a crop of players who listen and compete and play exactly like he lives.
Calhoun has built Connecticut from a Yankee Conference afterthought/Big East underachiever into a national power, but when the 68-year-old looks in the mirror, he still sees a Boston-area Irish kid who had to fight and scrap for everything. At Big East media day in October, he said he is never better than when he's backed into the narrowest of corners.
And this year he and the Huskies have been shoehorned into a pretty tight space.
UConn was picked to finish 10th in the Big East in the preseason, which wasn't far off.
The Huskies finished ninth in the league, a pedestrian 9-9.
Yet stealing a page from their coach's handbook, they have defiantly come out swinging. UConn did what everyone said it could not, winning five games in five nights in the Big East tournament, and now has added on to the improbable index another five wins in three weekends to reach the final game of the season.
A team most everyone figured wasn't going to be any good instead has become very good.
"I think we are like him," Walker said. "Everyone is always picking us to lose. You see five analysts on ESPN saying, 'Who's going to win?' and all I heard was Kentucky, five of five. We go into every game and most people think we're going to lose, so we just go and prove them wrong."
Much of the credit rightfully has fallen on Walker's slight shoulders, but Calhoun has been the puppeteer pulling all of the right strings. Players who have suffered his criticism insist that he is easier on this crop of Huskies, but if he is, it is with good reason and good reward. Walker has shouldered plenty but the idea that UConn is a one-man band is something of a misnomer.
His freshman supporting cast has grown up, pushed and prodded there by Calhoun. In 30 regular-season games, Jeremy Lamb averaged 9.6 points per game. In 10 in the postseason, he's at 15.6. Calhoun's tenuous faith in Shabazz Napier -- "For every minute he plays, I age two years," Calhoun joked -- and Napier's improved production has in turn made Walker a better player. When Napier is in the game and handling the ball, Walker shoots 48 percent from the floor. When he's not, Walker hits only 32 percent.
"I think [Calhoun] lets more mistakes go because this is such a young team," Walker said. "He picks and chooses when to yell at them and when not to."
Even if the Huskies win the national championship, the scrutiny won't stop, at least not for a while. Nate Miles, the player at the center of the NCAA probe, told the New York Times this weekend that Calhoun was well aware of the improper benefits he received from a former manager turned agent.
The NCAA has said it will listen to Miles, who initially declined to speak with the organization, but that does not necessarily mean it will reopen its investigation.
Unlike so many of his colleagues, who try to pretend they do not own televisions, radios, computers or possess the ability to read, Calhoun knows what people are saying, what they are thinking. He knows that more than a few critics will snicker if the NCAA champion is also the NCAA suspended coach. But he says, at least for now, he has bigger fish to fry.
"It's a legitimate question but I don't have a thought about it right now because right now I'm thinking about Butler," he said. "After that I'll think about recruiting. After that, my golf trip starts May 9th."
If that sounds like ostrich ignorance, his players insist it is not.
It is how, they say, Jim Calhoun handles most everything -- square on.
"I think he's handled this whole NCAA thing really well," Walker said. "And I think if we win a national championship, nobody is going to be able to tell him anything."
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.
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