Jim Calhoun is tough. That's one of the first things you notice when you see him during a game. His intensity is unmistakable, certainly to the players who he doesn't feel are performing up to his standards.
But he also seemed to soften this year. Maybe the looming NCAA investigation gave him new perspective. Or perhaps, as Calhoun has mentioned several times in recent months, he really does love this group of kids comprised mostly of freshmen, sophomores and, of course, Kemba Walker.
Whatever, when UConn faces Kentucky in the Final Four Saturday, there will be no love lost between Calhoun and Wildcats coach John Calipari. Their rivalry, if you can call it that, includes just five games but spans nearly 20 years, back when Calipari was the young up-and-comer at UMass and Calhoun was less than a decade into his tenure at UConn.
The Boston Globe's Mark Blaudschun (the same guy who predicted the Huskies would make it to the Final Four, by the way) writes that those "early meetings were more of a New England 'family feud' thing between schools from neighboring states." Adding that now, "Make no mistake: Calhoun and Calipari don’t chat during the off season. They are not friends now, and probably never will be. But there is no shortage of respect on either side."
According to Blaudschun, the rivalry goes back to the early '90s when Calipari, at UMass, claimed that “We will play anyone, anywhere, anytime,'" presumably in an effort to get the Huskies on the schedule.
Calhoun's response at the time: “Calipari said he plays a national schedule, so obviously he doesn’t need us. We play Kansas and Duke, and we think those are pretty good teams. We’re happy with who we are playing now."
Hardly Cheney vs. Calipari from 1994, but even without the threat of physical confrontation Calhoun thrives in the underdog role. If there's a way to use this as motivation for his team, he'll do it. Also not hurting: having Walker on the floor. To paraphrase one of the all-time great Mike Tyson quotes: "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face."
The takeaway: all the talking goes out the window when the game starts. And what Walker can do on the court is the equivalent to getting punched in the face for most opponents.