Jim Calhoun returned to the bench less than a week after back surgery and the Huskies promptly beat Pittsburgh like it was their destiny. This is the same team that had lost nine of their previous 12 and at times looked every bit the NIT team they played like.
So has Calhoun magically fixed all that by just showing up? No, of course not. But there's no denying his importance to this team. No slight to associate head coach George Blaney, who filled in capably in Calhoun's absence, but this young Huskies team needs somebody in their face motivating them. Last season's NCAA Championship team was young too, but much of that was mitigated by Kemba Walker's presence.
Now with Walker in the NBA, Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier haven't filled that leadership void. And it's not all that surprising; they're sophomores. But again, that's what Calhoun's for.
And now that things seem to be approach normalcy -- and that includes UConn's return to the NCAA Tournament -- the team can focus on playing the type of basketball that had them ranked No. 4 during the preseason. And if that means relying on last March's run through the postseason then so be it.
"This is where 'Madness' begins, " Napier said via the Hartford Courant. "We are so confident. It's a whole other season now. … We can do this — one game at a time, one possession at a time."
More details via the Courant's Dom Amore:
After Calhoun guided the Huskies through their 74-65 victory over Pittsburgh on Saturday, he told the players, according to Ryan Boatright, that he returned to bring them together for a run at another championship. As the last day of the regular season continued to unfold, things somehow fell into place to put UConn in a position nearly identical to where it started its run to the national championship one year ago, with Kemba Walker doing his magic.
While the 2010-11 and 2011-12 squads share some similarities -- young roster, inconsistent (okay, disappointing) play down the stretch in the regular season -- there's also one huge difference: the schools that make up the at-large-bid pool for available NCAA Tourney spots are weak when compared to last year's candidates. It's why this Huskies squad is virtually assured a ticket to the Big Dance while last year's club needed to show well in the conference tournament to secure a bid. All they did: reel off 11 wins in a row for Calhoun's third national title.
"We've got too many top-50 games and too many things have gone on with this team,'' Blaney said of this year's team. "But I would like not to have it in the hands of the [NCAA selection committee]. We just need to go and win games.''
Fair enough, but in addition to Calhoun's return, there's reason for optimism. "We had played three good games in a row and had one win to show for it," Blaney continued. "This is our fourth good game in a row. We are trending in the right direction. Having [Calhoun] back really helps, and we'll go from there."
And "going from there" begins Tuesday at Madison Square Garden when the Huskies face DePaul in the first round of the Big East Tournament.