Why UConn fans love Jim Calhoun

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The job of a sportswriter centers about one’s ability to remain — or at least appear — unbiased and impartial.

Once you pick up the pen, you put down the pom-poms because, as you all know, there is no cheering in the press box.

But the problem with that theory is that every single hack that strings words together about sports was originally a fan. They probably still are fans. There’s no possible way to build a life around watching and interpreting games without, in some way, loving those games and the teams involved and the players that take center stage.

I grew up playing basketball in Connecticut. From a sporting perspective, my state isn’t much more that the Border War between Boston and New York; between the Yankees and the Red Sox, the Celtics and the Knicks, the Patriots and the Giants or Jets. The passion of those separate fan bases for whatever team it is they root for is as intense as that of the kid that grew up in the Bronx or in Southie. We wore the jerseys. We watched all the games on Yes! or NESN. We ran our mouth when our favorite team won and jawed back even more when our favorite team lost.

And while we were always fans of those teams, they were never “our” team the way that kid from the Bronk can call the Yankees “his” team or the kid from Queens can call the Mets “his” team or the kid from Boston can call the Celtics “his” team. For many, a trip into the city to catch a Saturday afternoon game came in lieu of a vacation once you factored in the tickets, the parking, the program, Dad’s beer and your hot dog and nachos.

That’s why Jim Calhoun is so revered in the state of Connecticut.

Because he took a program that was no different that Rhode Island or UMass or, for that matter, Boston College or Rutgers and turned it into one that trails only Kansas, Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina in wins since 1989 and has more national titles since 1999 than any program in the country. In fact, the only other programs that have ever won as many three national titles in their history are all considered “blue-bloods” —  the four teams listed above, plus Indiana and UCLA.

Jim Calhoun gave us “our” team.

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I still remember the exact moment when I fell in love with the Huskies.

It was the 1996 Big East title game. Ray Allen’s UConn team was taking on Georgetown and Allen Iverson in a game that tipped off around 9 p.m. At the time, I was just a couple of weeks short of my 10th birthday and my little brother had just turned eight. Staying up late enough to watch the end of a game was not commonplace in our household.

But I bartered and I negotiated and I argued my way into convincing my dad to let us stay up until it became a 10 point game because, in my ten year old mind, a ten point game all but meant the game was over. Late in the second half, Georgetown went up 11. Possession by possession, I convinced my dad to let me watch one more possession, and slowly but surely, the Huskies trimmed the lead down until, with about 17 seconds left on the clock, Allen drove middle, found himself stuck in the air, and threw the ball at the basket.

Off the rim.

Off the backboard.

In.

UConn still had to survive a fadeaway 17 footer from Iverson and a blown layup from Jerome Williams, but they did, sending the Huskies to their second ever Big East tournament title.

We all have those moments in sports where we’ll never forget exactly where we were when we watched them. Landon Donovan’s goal against Algeria in last year’s. Tino Martinez and Scott Brosius homering in the bottom of the ninth in back-to-back World Series games. Jordan crossing up Byron Russell and drilling the game-winner in 1998.

For me, nothing will ever top that shot from Ray-Ray, even if there have been hundreds of moments throughout Calhoun’s illustrious career that could be considered on par:

The scrum that led to Rip Hamilton’s game-winner over Washington in the second round of the 1998 NCAA tournament. Khaled El-Amin screaming “We shocked the world!!” after beating Duke in the 1999 title game. Taliek Brown banking in a 35-footer as UConn beat Pitt in double-overtime in the 2002 Big East title game. A second win over Duke in the 2004 Final Four, overcoming an eight point deficit in the final three minutes, en route to a second national title.  AJ Price’s emergence as a star in 2008 during UConn’s trip to Indiana. Price carried the Huskies to a 68-63 win over Eric Gordon’s Hoosiers despite having sat out for two years — laptops and brain hemorrhages — and dealing with the suspension of Jerome Dyson and Doug Wiggins. The six overtime game. And, of course, the UConn Fighting Kembas. I was five years old for “The Shot”, Tate George’s game-winner against Clemson in the 1990 tournament, but that would be on this list for just about any other UConn fan.

Calhoun gave us those moments.

Calhoun is the reason that we experienced those joys.

Was he gruff? Yeah. Was he a curmudgeon? Most definitely. Did he run a dirty program? Unfortunately, yes. But in the end, that doesn’t matter to us. 20 years from now, no one is going to remember who Nate Miles was and no one is going to care that Calhoun stole Wiggins from St. John’s or that there is an NCAA rule against scheduling exhibitions with AAU teams because of money that may have changed hands during Rudy Gay’s recruitment.

We’re going to remember each and every one of those moments that made growing up a UConn fan one of the most amazing experiences one could ask for.

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In recent years, my fandom has waned. For starters, I eventually ended up playing college basketball, and while it was on a level a long, long way from the Big East, it still meant that I had practice every day during and games every weekend during basketball season. Throw in the fact that I went to a college that didn’t have cable in the dorms at a time when you couldn’t find every game streaming online, and it was tough to stay connected with a team that you never got a chance to watch.

Once I started writing about hoops, it became even more difficult to keep that kind of passion alive. I found myself actively trying to disconnect during UConn games. All things equal, I want to see UConn win. That cord will never be severed, and anyone that’s ever been a fan of any team in any sport should be able to understand that. But, more than anything, the result has been that I’ve become more critical of UConn than any other program in the country. I’m much more likely to take out a chainsaw and shred the Huskies in a post than I am to glorify or hyperbolize how good the team is. (This column excluded.)

But I still get chills when I go back and watch highlights of those old UConn teams.

You can vacate wins. You can call Jim Calhoun dirty. You can say that he’s worse than John Calipari.

None of that will matter for UConn fans.

He gave us our team.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

 

Self says he’s “optimistic” about Preston playing for Jayhawks

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There hasn’t been much new good around Lawrence lately with Kansas dropping its last two games, but the Jayhawks apparently have reason for hope.

Kansas coach Bill Self said he is “optimistic” that freshman Billy Preston, who has been held out of competition while the school investigates the financial background of a car he has been driving, will play for the Jayhawks this season, according to the Kansas City Star.

“I think our school has done a great job in creating, getting, all the information that could possibly be pertinent to his situation,” Self said, according to the Star. “The other thing you don’t know … they (NCAA officials) could come back and say, ‘We need more information.’ They could come back and say, ‘OK good to go.’ They could come back and say, ‘No it’s not good to go.’.

“Who knows what the response will be because it will be determined by somebody else. The reality of it is us putting a total package together from every scenario … we’ve done a good job. Hopefully, whatever information that is given to the deciding parties, it’ll be a quick turnaround … but we don’t know that yet either.”

Preston, a top-20 recruit in 2017, has yet to play for the Jayhawks after being suspended for the team’s season opener and then because questions were raised about a car he was driving when he was involved in a single-car accident. The Jayhawks could use the 6-foot-9 Preston in the lineup to help right the ship after these back-to-back losses that have, in part, shown just how thin up front the Jayhawks are.

There is also the possibility that Silvio De Sousa, a 6-foot-9 2018 commit, could enroll this semester.

“There are questions, but the answers will probably take place I would say in the next week to 10 days.”

Former NBA star Mark Price fired by Charlotte

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The college basketball coaching carousel now has three openings just over a month into the season, as Charlotte announced that head coach Mark Price has been “released from his contract.”

“We appreciate all that coach Price has done for our program,” said athletic director Judy Rose. “His background and knowledge were assets to our young players and we appreciate him sharing his talents with our team. This was a difficult decision, especially as we make plans to open conference play, but we do feel it is in the best interest of our basketball program.”

Assistant coach Houston Fancher has been tabbed as the interim coach.

Charlotte is 3-6 this season. Through two and a half years, Price had a record of 30-42 with the 49ers and was 16-20 in Conference USA play.

East Carolina’s Jeff Lebo and UTEP’s Tim Floyd both resigned earlier this season.

College Basketball Futures Watch Part II: Maryland through Seton Hall

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Over the course of the next three days, we at College Basketball Talk will be cruising through the best, the most surprising and the most disappointing teams in college basketball.

As of today, how should we view the 45 most interesting teams in the country based on preseason expectation? 

Are we more confident in them? Less confident? Still unsure?

We used five different labels here to help define how we feel about each of the 45 teams mentioned:

  • Bet The Mortgage
  • Raise
  • Check
  • Fold
  • Get Your Stuff And Go Home

Today, we go through everyone from Maryland to Seton Hall.

Let’s get into it.

MARYLAND: Check

The Terrapins don’t lack for young talent, with the sophomore class of Anthony Cowan Jr., Kevin Huerter and Justin Jackson being joined by talented freshmen Darry Morsell and Bruno Fernando. But the turnover issues of last season are still present, with Maryland turning the ball over on more than 23 percent of its possessions. Given how tight the Big Ten stands to be in the middle of the conference standings, giving away possessions could be the difference between earning a double-bye in the conference tournament and being in a spot where a team needs to go on a run to ensure itself of an NCAA tournament bid. Maryland’s been better with the turnovers of late, but I’d like to see this be the case against high-level competition before raising my bet. Also, while none of Maryland’s losses have been particularly “bad,” the losses to St. Bonaventure and Syracuse mean that this team has just one noteworthy non-conference win on its resume (Butler). (Raphielle Johnson)

MIAMI: Bet The Mortgage

I’ve been all-in on Miami since the preseason. I thought they were going to win the ACC before the season started, before they went into Minnesota and sent the Gophers on this mini-spiral, before Duke lost and it became trendy to think that someone other than Duke was the best team in that conference. That was also before I knew that Dewan Huell was going to be as good as he’s been. We saw on Saturday what happens when Duke has to deal with ball-screens, and Jim Larrañaga loves ball-screens and has a roster full of talented, athletic guards that thrive in them. (Rob Dauster)

MICHIGAN: Fold

The Wolverines have not exactly been all that impressive this season. They blew a 20-point lead to Ohio State and lost to LSU in the Maui Invitational opener. The overtime win over UCLA on Saturday and a win at Texas on Tuesday do make me second-guess myself here, but I just have a difficult time projecting much out of a John Beilein-coached team with this many point guard question marks a month into the season. (RD)

MICHIGAN STATE: Bet The Mortgage

The Spartans have only lost to another national contender in Duke the first week of the season. Looking as deep and balanced as any team in the country, Michigan State has five double-figure scorers and a bench full of upperclass veterans. They might break the Big Ten’s title drought. (Scott Phillips)

Jordan Murphy (Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

MINNESOTA: Fold

Since nearly blowing a lead while playing three Alabama players, the Golden Gophers have lost three of five games, including bad double-digit losses at Nebraska and Arkansas. For a team that hopes to make a run in March, Minnesota hasn’t shown enough recent consistency against good teams to look like a major threat. Jordan Murphy looks like one of this season’s biggest new stars but Minnesota is in a recent tailspin and the heart of the conference schedule has yet to begin. (SP)

NEVADA: Raise

The Wolf Pack missed out on two quality wins as they dropped close ones to Texas Tech and TCU last week, but this is still the team to beat in the Mountain West. The Martin twins have hit the ground running during their first season on the court after transferring in from NC State, and in Jordan Caroline they’ve got a versatile forward who’s averaging 17.4 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. Purdue transfer Kendall Stephens has shot the ball well from the perimeter, and players such as Josh Hall, Lindsey Drew and Hallice Cooke are all solid contributors as well. UNLV, Boise State and Wyoming are also worth keeping tabs on in the Mountain West, but Eric Musselman’s ability to blend together talented transfers with players who have already been part of the program is what makes Nevada such a threat. (RJ)

NORTH CAROLINA: Check

I had North Carolina down as a raise until I realized that they were ranked No. 7 in both polls. If that’s where they are in the national consciousness, that’s probably fair. I’d argue that’s their ceiling. Remember, we’re talking about a team that is currently getting all-american performances out of Luke Maye on a nightly basis, a team where Maye is the only big man on the roster that isn’t a freshman. If being a top ten team is the baseline we’re working with here, then North Carolina is a check. (RD)

NORTHWESTERN: Fold

Not showing nearly the same focus and intensity as last season’s NCAA tournament team, Northwestern has been sluggish defensively against strong competition. Only owning an overtime home win over Illinois, the Wildcats have fallen to Creighton, Texas Tech, Georgia Tech and Purdue. The next stretch of three non-conference games against DePaul, Valparaiso and Oklahoma are key. (SP)

NOTRE DAME: Raise

Although the Fighting Irish suffered a puzzling home loss to Ball State, there is still reason to be optimistic. Bonzie Colson hasn’t found his touch from the outside and could get hot at any point. Younger role players like Rex Pflueger and D.J. Harvey have room to grow. Notre Dame has a favorable ACC schedule. Notre Dame’s offense is still potent and they have plenty of weapons. (SP)

OKLAHOMA: Raise

The Sooners have Trae Young.

He’s really good.

Bet on the Sooners. (Travis Hines)

OREGON: Check

When it comes to the on-court product, the impulse when it comes to Oregon is to trust that Dana Altman will have it all figured out for conference play and the Ducks will be a Pac-12 contender. Maybe that happens again this season, but thus far the Ducks have largely been a jump-shooting team that struggles when it comes to getting to the foul line (254th in free throw rate). And when you’re shooting just 36.1 percent from three, that could be an issue. Despite the additions of talented offensive options such as Elijah Brown and Troy Brown, Oregon hasn’t been as efficient offensively as past Altman-coached teams have been. And I’d argue that this team doesn’t have as many versatile players who can fill a variety of roles on both ends of the court as past Oregon teams have possessed, either. Don’t give up on Oregon, but don’t be in a hurry to add money to the pot either. (RJ)

Trae Young (Harry How/Getty Images)

PURDUE: Raise

Minus a poor stretch at Battle 4 Atlantis, Purdue has looked like a veteran team with a number of options. Owning quality wins over Arizona, Louisville, Marquette, Maryland and Northwestern, the Boilermakers look like a potentially strong team in a weak Big Ten. Sophomore guard Carsen Edwards has blossomed as a scorer and he has weapons like Dakota Mathias, Vincent Edwards and Isaac Haas around him. (SP)

RHODE ISLAND: Raise

That win over Seton Hall, which came without the injured E.C. Matthews, will do wonders for URI’s profile as it looks to earn a second consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament. The perimeter is deep and talented, even without Matthews, with Jared Terrell, Jeff Dowtin Jr., Jarvis Garrett and an emerging freshman in Darron “Fatts” Russell among the contributors. The front court is the question mark; if Nikola Akele, Cyril Langevine and Andre Berry can provide consistent production the Rams should be able to take care of business in the Atlantic 10 and get back to the NCAA tournament. I’d raise on Dan Hurley’s team, but maybe exercise some caution with the dollar amount until Matthews returns to the court. (RJ)

SAINT MARY’S: Check

This is a good team and the biggest threat to Gonzaga in the race for the WCC title. But here’s the question that arose from those losses to Washington State and Georgia in the Wooden Legacy: can this group slow down dynamic guards? Malachi Flynn did his thing for Washington State, and in the third-place game Georgia’s Juwan Parker, William Jackson and Tyree Crump all performed well. The Gaels haven’t lost since, taking care of Cal, Sacramento State and Seattle, but that’s to be expected. Emmett Naar and Jock Landale are capable, talented players who will lead the way, and Randy Bennett’s team will once again produce a gaudy win total. But due to the lack of a marquee non-conference win, those games against Gonzaga are of even greater importance to Saint Mary’s. Talent-wise this is an NCAA tournament team, but will the profile be good enough to get Saint Mary’s a good seed as well come March? That’s my concern. (RJ)

SETON HALL: Raise

So here’s the thing about Seton Hall: To date, they’ve been about what I expected them to be entering the season. They look like they may be the best team in the Big East not named Villanova. They are tough. They defend. They are nestled somewhere in the top 15 nationally. But I’m still bullish on the Pirates because their two best players haven’t been their two best players. What does that mean? Well, Angel Delgado was a preseason all-american. Khadeen Carrington was a member of the preseason all-Big East team. Through the first month and change of the season, Desi Rodriguez has been Seton Hall’s all-american and Myles Powell has been an all-Big East player. That’s explainable – Delgado is dealing with double-teams, Carrington is still figuring out the point guard role – but it also means the Pirates haven’t yet reached their ceiling. That’s a good thing. (RD)

Desi Rodriguez (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

VIDEO: Wisconsin beats Western Kentucky on controversial blocking call 90 feet from the hoop

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Wisconsin freshman Brad Davison helped the Badgers sneak past Western Kentucky for an 81-80 win on Wednesday night by drawing a blocking call 90 feet from the basket on an inbounds play with two seconds left.

With the game tied at 80 and the Badgers in the double bonus, the blocking foul on Western Kentucky’s Marek Nelson sent Davison to the free throw line to clinch the game. Davison made the first free throw and purposely missed the second to give Wisconsin the one-point win.

Obviously, some smart coaching from Gard (if he called it) and a good play from Davison to elicit the call from the official. But for Western Kentucky to lose like this? On a call like this? That’s a really poor look from the officials, who could have just as easily called this a charge. Or even better, let the play go and settle for a likely overtime between two tied teams.

That referee’s call, on what’s very close to a non-basketball play, decided Wisconsin’s win over the Hilltoppers.

Western Kentucky head coach Rick Stansbury was furious over the call and was hoping the officials could check to see if Davison was out of bounds.

Brunson leads No. 1 Villanova in rout of Temple

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Jalen Brunson had 22 of his career-high 31 points in No. 1 Villanova’s dominating first half and Omari Spellman scored 27 to help lead the Wildcats to an 87-67 rout of Temple on Wednesday night.

Donte DiVincenzo added 12 points for Villanova (11-0), which won its unprecedented 22nd straight Big 5 game. The Wildcats last lost a contest in the Philadelphia round-robin series to Temple on Dec. 5, 2012. The Big 5 also consists of La Salle, Saint Joseph’s and Penn.

The Wildcats, who moved into the top spot in the rankings for the third straight season this week, looked like the best team in the country in a dominating opening 20 minutes.

With his dad Rick – a former Temple standout and current assistant coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves who played nine seasons in the NBA – sitting two rows behind the Villanova bench, Brunson led the way.

The 6-foot-2 junior point guard made 8 of 10 shots, including 5 of 7 3-pointers, and added four assists while controlling the opening 20 minutes.

The performance surely impressed Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown and Rookie of the Year candidate Ben Simmons, who were among the sellout crowd of 10,206 at Temple.

Quinton Rose scored 27 points for the Owls (6-3), who began the week No. 11 in the RPI rankings. It was the third straight season Temple played Villanova as a No. 1, and the Owls fell to 2-18 all-time against No. 1-ranked opponents.

The Temple student section was fired up in the pregame, hoping to help the Owls end Villanova’s Philadelphia dominance, but the Wildcats gave them little for which to cheer.

The Wildcats scored the first seven points as Temple came out cold, missing its first five shots and committing three turnovers.

And Villanova went from there.

The Wildcats took their biggest lead of the half on DiVincenzo’s 3-pointer that made it 25-5 with 11 minutes left before the break. And the lead reached 20 again on Brunson’s 3-pointer that made it 28-8 44 seconds later.

Temple rallied by scoring the next 13 points over 3 1/2 minutes to pull within 28-21 on Josh Brown’s jumper with 6:45 left before the break.

But Villanova continued making shots and Brunson, appropriately, finished the first-half scoring with a 3-pointer with 47 seconds left that gave the Wildcats a 46-29 lead.

Villanova shot 59 percent from the field and 50 percent from the arc in the opening 20 minutes.

The second half was a mere formality.

BIG PICTURE

Villanova: The Wildcats likely will hold the top spot in the rankings for at least another week, as they will take nine days off for exams before returning to the court. They will next play a nonconference game against Hofstra, the program Wildcats coach Jay Wright led before coming to Villanova, on Dec. 22 before beginning Big East play on Dec. 27 at DePaul.

Temple: The Owls host another Philadelphia school, Drexel, on Saturday and then play at Georgia on Dec. 22 before starting American Conference play on Dec. 28 against Tulane. The Owls will be looking for their 33rd NCAA Tournament appearance and will need a high finish in the conference to get there.

UP NEXT

Villanova: After a break for exams, the Wildcats play Hofstra on Dec. 22 in Uniondale, New York.

Temple: Hosts Drexel on Saturday night.

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