ANAHEIM, Calif. — After Jim Calhoun’s Connecticut basketball team earned its fourth trip to the Final Four, the 68-year-old coach with two national titles recounted something a good friend once told him: “I don’t mind fighting you in open space, but I hate to put you in a corner.”
Cornered for two years, Calhoun has seen the NCAA rummage through his program in Storrs, Conn., to uncover the depths of recruiting violations. He suffered an undisclosed illness that forced him to miss nine games last season. And he buried his best friend and sister-in-law.
Ask prominent college and summer-league coaches about Calhoun, and many will defend his credentials as a Hall of Fame coach who constructed an elite program from rubble a quarter-century ago. But others will paint Connecticut as a program that has operated within the recruiting gray area, pushing the envelope to engage third-party individuals while pursuing prospects.
Whatever one’s opinion is on Calhoun, grant him this: You can knock him down, but you can’t keep him out. And what has revitalized Calhoun this year is this team: a band of freshmen and sophomores who followed an indefatigable, demonstrative leader, Kemba Walker, in an improbable nine-game run through the Big East tournament and West Region. Calhoun has needed this team at least as much as it has needed him.
Calhoun’s walk is slower, more labored now; some thought he would, or should, retire by now. In fact, he is older than two other Final Four coaches — Butler’s Brad Stevens, 34; Virginia Commonwealth’s Shaka Smart, 33 — combined. But Calhoun is energized anytime he talks about this year’s team. He glows. And in three sentences, Calhoun captured what this team has meant to him after the last two years:
“I felt like I was in a corner because the sweat equity that we all have — my players, my coaches, the university — put into U-Conn. basketball over the past 25 years is pretty deep and rich, and to have people dismiss us, I took that personally. If I take something personally, I am going to do everything humanly possibly to make sure that your perception is wrong. These kids allowed that to happen.”
While watching the Huskies cut down a net at Honda Center following a 65-63 win over Arizona in the region final, former U-Conn. standout Jake Voskuhl said of Calhoun: “This is the year that keeps him going.”
And no one — not even Calhoun — saw it coming. After missing the NCAA tournament last season, the Huskies were on no one’s radar as a national contender this season. They received all of eight votes and were unranked in the preseason Associated Press top 25. They were predicted to finish 10th in the Big East. Calhoun’s realistic expectation for the team: make the NCAA tournament.
The initial tone to the season was an ominous one, set when Calhoun missed the first practice so he could defend his program in front of the NCAA Committee on Infractions. The NCAA had been investigating U-Conn. since Yahoo! Sports reported in March 2009 that Josh Nochimson, a former student manager turned sports agent, helped guide prospect Nate Miles to U-Conn., giving Miles lodging, transportation, meals and representation.
But on the court, what Calhoun saw early was his players’ enthusiasm to learn and a looseness that came from Walker, a junior who became arguably the nation’s best player. What Calhoun initially characterized as silliness from young players was instead an eagerness to continue to learn and improve. They enjoyed playing basketball and competing.
“It was something different about this group,” Calhoun said. “They have just been — I have never seen anything like it. When I have been tough on them, they’ve stuck. When we tried to build their confidence up, they come back every day begging for more.”
An early indication of U-Conn.’s potential came in the Maui Invitational, where the Huskies routed Kentucky — their opponent in Saturday’s national semifinals — to win the championship. Six weeks later, they earned an impressive one-point victory at Texas.
The difference, as it has been all season, was Walker, who may have authored the best individual season of any U-Conn. player in history. But the development of mostly unheralded freshmen, particularly the sinewy Jeremy Lamb (now a late-game force to complement Walker) was just as rewarding for Calhoun, a pleasant surprise.
The NCAA handed down its verdict in late February, when it reduced U-Conn’s scholarships for three academic years and imposed recruiting restrictions. It also cited Calhoun for failing to create an atmosphere of compliance and suspended the coach for three Big East games during the 2011-12 season.
When the penalty was announced, Dennis Thomas, the chairman of the NCAA Committee on Infractions, said: “We cited the head coach for not being on top of these issues with the agent, the booster. The head coach stated that the booster was a member of the family during his days as team manager.”
The ruling rattled Calhoun; in the eyes of many, it tarnished his legacy. It served as fuel for Walker, who said Saturday, “It was motivation, honestly. I always felt that the NCAA is always trying to pick on U-Conn. for some reason. And it was extra motivation for me and my teammates.”
Toward the end of the regular season, the Huskies had begun to fade. They lost four of their last five regular-season games, all against NCAA tournament teams, to finish in ninth place in the Big East with a 9-9 league record. That set the stage for an epic run.
In the Big East tournament, the Huskies treated DePaul like a warm-up act. Then they hammered a Georgetown team that was without guard Chris Wright. Then came the stiffest test: regular season Big East champ Pittsburgh. Calhoun said the Pittsburgh game — a 76-74 U-Conn. victory — was the “kick-off point as far as we can beat anybody.” The Huskies won two more games — Syracuse and Louisville — to complete an historic run of five wins in five days to win the Big East tournament title.
And now they have won four more tournament games to reach Calhoun’s fourth Final Four — nine tournament wins on neutral courts in 19 days.
Calhoun calls this team the “most unusual group of kids I have ever been around.” One can also call the team a group of kids that arrived at the ideal time for their head coach.
As Calhoun concluded: “I needed these kids.”