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Debate!: Who you got? Lute Olson or Jim Calhoun

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In 2008, Lute Olson retired from coaching at the ripe old age of 74, having spent the past 25 years taking Arizona from a West Coast afterthought and turning them into a national championship program that was a mainstay in the top 25 through the majority of his tenure. Just four years later, Jim Calhoun retired from UConn having built the Huskies into one of the nation’s premier basketball programs when no one believed it could be. 

Both Calhoun and Olson single-handedly built programs from the ground up and turned them into national players in locations where basketball wasn’t a priority. But here’s the question of the hour: who was more impressive? Whose is the better “program builder”? Raphielle and I will now do our best sports bar impression and argue this out. Hopefully, things stay peaceful. 

Rob: UConn basketball was nothing prior to Jim Calhoun arriving on campus from Northeastern in 1986. In their seven seasons in the Big East up to that point, UConn had managed to make just a single NCAA tournament and, when Calhoun was hired, were coming off of 9-19 season. Within four years, Calhoun had managed to win the NIT, take home the Big East regular season and tournament titles, and advance to within a Christian Laettner buzzer-beater from the Final Four. As of his Thursday retirement, UConn had won 10 regular season conference titles, seven conference tournament titles, made four Final Fours and taken home three national championships. Those 25 years are packed with more history and tradition than all but a handful of programs have managed to put together since James Naismith invented the sport.

Raphielle: When Lute Olson arrived in Tucson in 1983 the Wildcats were just five years removed from joining the then-Pac-10, and it would be an understatement to say that the Wildcats he found weren’t equipped to be a factor in the conference. That changed quickly. He took a team that won four games with little talent and pushed them to 11 in his first campaign, and from that point forward Olson would fail to reach 20 wins in a season just twice: 1986-87 and 2007-08. Like Calhoun with Bridgeport’s Chris Smith, Olson’s most important recruiting victory early on was keeping Tucson native Sean Elliott in the Old Pueblo. By the time Elliott was a junior (Olson’s fifth season) the Wildcats were in their first Final Four. From that point forward it was almost as if Olson ran a conveyer belt from McKale Center to the NBA, and a number of those players had a tangible impact at the next level. Olson won 608 games in his 25 seasons at Arizona, which works out to an average of 24 wins per season (24.3 to be exact), 11 Pac-10 championships, five Final Four appearances and a national title in 1997. And we can’t gloss over him taking the Wildcats to 23 straight NCAA tournament appearances (yes 1999 was vacated but that’s a bit silly) either.

Rob: I’ll give you consistency. The fact that Olson was able to get Arizona to 23 straight NCAA tournaments is downright mystifying. Calhoun had some ugly season mixed in with his national titles. But the key word in that sentence is “titles”. Plural. Calhoun won three of them, and while there may be some element of luck when it comes to his 3-0 record in national title games, the fact of the matter is that Calhoun was able to capitalize when he had the talent on his roster.

And while Olson’s track record of getting players to the NBA is inarguable, it’s not like Calhoun was winning with future all-Euroleague players. He sent just as many players to the next level. What’s most impressive about Calhoun’s pros is that there weren’t many that entered the program as guaranteed lottery picks. Andre Drummond was a pro, everyone knew that. The same with Rudy Gay and Charlie Villanueva. But Jeremy Lamb wasn’t a top 10 recruit. Ray Allen was overlooked coming out of high school, and he went on to become the greatest shooter in the history of the NBA. Emeka Okafor chose UConn over Vanderbilt and Arkansas and went on to become national player of the year and the No. 2 pick. Ben Gordon was the No. 3 pick that year, and he was closer to a top 50 recruit than he was a guaranteed NBA all-star.

Raphielle: Oh here we go with the “titles” talk. Yes titles are important, there’s no denying that. But let me ask you something: which power forward are you taking, Robert Horry (7 titles) or Charles Barkley (0 titles)? There’s the flaw in that argument, because winning a championship involves a certain level of luck in addition to skill. Were there a few forgettable “one and done” trips for Olson? Yes, but to get your team to the tournament for 23 straight years is a major achievement. And in those 23 trips the Wildcats’ average seed was a 4-seed (4.4 to be exact).

As for the NBA talent we can argue that one all night as both programs have sent many players to the NBA to not just occupy a roster space but make things happen. But which school is known as “Point Guard U”? I’ve got love for Kenny Anderson, Stephon Marbury and Travis Best but we’re not talking Georgia Tech here. That would be Arizona, with players such as Steve Kerr, Damon Stoudamire, Jason Terry, Mike Bibby and Jason Gardner have run the show at one point or another. When it comes to “unexpected” pros, how many thought Gilbert Arenas would become what he was (pre-idiotic gun incident) when he was in high school? And he’s got a nice list of off-guards/wings when looking at players such as Richard Jefferson, Andre Iguodala and Miles Simon (just to name three).

Rob: The Robert Horry-Charles Barkley comparison isn’t fair. Players are much different than coaches. The better comparison, in my opinion, would be who would you rather have coaching your team in the NBA: Pat Riley or Lenny Wilkens?

There’s no denying Olson’s success with point guards (can’t believe you didn’t mention Kenny Lofton in with that group). That also just so happens to be the only position where UConn doesn’t have a storied history when it comes to producing NBA players.

Thus far, we’ve determined that Olson was really good at putting together teams that earned four seeds and sent point guards to the NBA while Calhoun could develop off-guards, wings and big men while building teams that won titles. That right?

Raphielle: Pat Riley was the epitome of smooth, so I’ll give you that argument. I didn’t mention Lofton because he went pro in baseball; I’d think that his raw athleticism (didn’t play baseball until his junior year and ended up getting drafted despite limited PT) had more to do with that.

And I notice that you conveniently left out Olson’s title in your wrapping up of the discussion. That suddenly not count? Yes Calhoun has more, that’s been established, but do we really just say “well Lute produced point guards and 4-seeds”? Winning titles is about luck in another aspect: recruiting. If your school produces guards at a higher rate it’s going to be tougher land the elite big men that generally win titles at the college level (Duke 2010 being the most recent exception). Just ask Villanova’s 2006 team what happened when they ran into Joakim Noah, Al Horford and company. But back to Arizona, in the Final Four trips they lost the Wildcats ran into Stacey King (1988), Corliss Williamson (1994) and Carlos Boozer (2001). Those great big men at the pro level? Hell no, but they were damn good in college. All I’m saying is that in a one-and-done scenario you have to be careful to completely gloss over how much of a crapshoot the tournament is.

Rob: Changing gears a bit, the most interesting part about the debate between Calhoun vs. Olson is how similar their exits were. Both found themselves caught up in NCAA red tape (Calhoun because of Nate Miles and the APR, Olson because of the Cactus Classic) while battling health issues, which eventually became too much and resulted in a September retirement.

The difference, however, is that UConn ended up with Calhoun’s “coach-in-waiting” — Kevin Ollie — getting a chance at the job, while Mike Dunlap couldn’t work things out with the Arizona brass to take over for Olson. It worked out for the Wildcats, however, as their interim coach led them to the Sweet 16 (quite Olson-esque, eh?) before Sean Miller took over and became arguably the best recruiter in the country this side of Coach Cal.

More institutional pull = better coach, right?

Raphielle: Yeah but Calhoun also finished out “in his office” so to speak, so I wouldn’t be so quick to make that correlation. More difficult to have a say when you’re not around on a consistent basis. That led to Olson not getting his wish of Dunlap being the man more than anything. Arizona mishandled that situation for three years and frankly lucked out that Sean Miller was available (oh, he landed Rondae Jefferson today). And Ollie got a 1-year contract, which while it’s something that he’s more than used to given his NBA career it’s not the best situation to have on the recruiting trail. So sure Calhoun “won” in getting his guy the job, but we’re really not going to know how big of a win it is until next March when their season ends and Ollie is evaluated.

So who’s got the “juice”? Guess we’ll agree to disagree on this one.

Why UConn fans love Jim Calhoun


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.


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.


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.


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.


Jim Calhoun undergoes successful surgery after bike fall Saturday

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Jim Calhoun was forced to miss his annual alumni game Saturday night after reportedly falling off of his bike and breaking his hip, which required surgery.

He successfully underwent that surgery Saturday night, the school announced Sunday, and he is resting comfortably, set to be released from the hospital in the coming days.

“He’s just had some bad breaks this last year or so,” UConn athletic director Warde Manuel told the Associated Press, “and we’ve just got to hope that he has a speedy recovery.”

In Calhoun’s absence, the Alumni Game went on, with current Charlotte Bobcats guard and former Husky Kemba Walker scoring 38 points in front of over 7,000 fans at the Mohegan Sun Arena.

Walker was among 36 alumni at the game, including Ray Allen, Richard Hamilton, and Jeremy Lamb.

Calhoun’s injury brings along with it continued speculation about whether he is close to retirement, now 70 years old.

“I know he’s going to fight,” Lamb told the AP. “But I don’t know if it will make him want to coach more or retire more. I just know coach is a tough guy, a real strong man, and he’s going to do what’s best for him and his family.”

It will be a season of change for Connecticut in 2012-13, banned from the postseason for a non-qualifying APR score and without a large chunk of its key contributors from last season.

Jeremy Lamb and Andre Drummond left for the NBA draft, along with the transfers of Alex Oriakhi, Michael Bradley, and Roscoe Smith.

The Huskies bring in a three-man recruiting class for 2012-13, led by New York guard Omar Calhoun.

Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_

Louisville’s looking to Kevin Ware to step into starting role

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Louisville returns a chunk of its lineup from the 2012 Final Four team, including guards Peyton Siva, Russ Smith and Wayne Blackshear. But Rick Pitino recently said that if the season started today, sophomore Kevin Ware would get the nod at shooting guard.

Yep, Kevin Ware.

He wasn’t so hot as a freshman (in 20 games played, he shot 29.6 percent and averaged one point per game), but his game’s improved so much over the summer that he’d get the nod. How’d that happen? Let’s ask C.L. Brown of the Louisville Courier-Journal:

“What we do basically is we show them the perfect jump shot, which is Ray Allen with his legs, with his form and technique,” Pitino said. “We put it on a split screen with theirs, and the timing is the same. It shows their mistakes, and we go out and work on it.”

Pitino added that the key to Ware’s improvement is not just repetition.

“If you’re repeating a bad shot, you’re not gaining anything,” he said. “You have to be technically right.”

Ware could conceivably be a backup point guard, but Siva’s unlikely to spend much time on the bench and Smith’s usually an effective replacement when needed (provided he’s hitting). And it’ll be interesting to see how Ware’s defense has progressed.

But mostly, the Cards need his shooting. For a team that leaned on its defense in March, having a guy who can replace Kyle Kuric’s perimeter shooting is a necessity. We’ll see how it pans out.

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

The Morning Mix

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– Is Oklahoma State the best team in the Big-XII? Probably not, but Kansas coach Bill Self thinks the Cowboys are the best team on paper. Florida’s Billy Donovan and Gonzaga’s Mark Few were gushing about OK-State incoming freshman Marcus Smart

– Recruiting rankings don’t always determine who ends up having the most successful career. Cracked Sidewalks explains what “value add” can determine and provides some interesting evidence

– Eric Crawford details the five steps needed towards reinventing the Big East Conference

– More fallout from the North Carolina academic scandal: athletic advisers steered players towards “no-show” classes

– Recruiting icon Sonny Vaccaro returned to the courts this weekend in order to shoot a 30 for 30 documentary

– Divorced-Syracuse fan wants visitation rights for his kids if/when the Orange make the National Championship game

The FriarBlog provides an excellent take on the ten reasons why the NCAA should clear highly touted freshman Ricardo Ledo

– The 5-month old son of Northwest Minnesota State head coach Brad Bigler was killed last night in a drunk driving accident. Bigler’s wife and mother-in-law were also injured in the accident

– When coaches give inspirational speeches to kids at camp, they talk about guys like Corey Spence, a JuCo player who spent 30 hours on a Greyhound bus in order to make an event, then performs well enough to make the All-Star game

– Reports surfaced a few months back indicating that the 2012 London games would be the last for Mike Krzyzewski as head coach of Team USA. Now it looks like he will stay heavily involved in the program regardless of his decision to serve as the head coach

– The Olympic games could provide Mike D’Antoni with an opportunity to land a job in college hoops

– Louisville’s Kevin Ware is showing up on all sorts of “Breakout players to watch” lists, and with good reason. He scored just 20 points last year, but with some off-season help from Ray Allen, Ware is ready for a sensational sophomore campaign

Another good-read on Kansas sophomore Ben McLemore, who has been wowing coaches during summer league games

– Kansas center Jeff Withey had a huge breakout season in 2011-2012. In 2012-2013 he’s looking to have an impact season

– With the departure of Terell Stoglin, Maryland is going to rely heavily on the legs of Pe’Shon Howard, who is “ahead of schedule” with his recovery from an ACL tear

– It’s not often that schools like Pepperdine score top-100 recruits. So it was quite a recruiting coup when the Wave landed highly regarded guard Brandon Randolph

– Croatian guard Mislav  Brzoja, who had a sensational performance against the American squad at the FIBA U-19 World Championship is being rumored as heading to Villanova

– If Wake Forest is going to get out of their current rut, freshman guard Codi Miller-McIntyre is going to have to carry some of the load

– The final four pairing for the best four teams in VCU history

Former-Wichita State big-man Garrett Stutz got drafted No.1o in the 2012 Korean Basketball League draft

– Kentucky’s Kyle Wiltjer and Willie Cauley-Stein, more affectionately known as “The Goonies”, dropped another video. This one is significantly better that their first one

Top-5 contender for Summer League Dunk of the Year

Troy Machir is the managing editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @TroyMachir.

Former UConn forward Rudy Gay to play in Jim Calhoun charity game, receive Role Model award

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Rudy Gay will be among the former Connecticut players in town for Jim Calhoun’s charity game this upcoming week, but he will also be getting another honor, according to Dom Amore of the Hartford Courant.

Gay is set to receive the Middlesex County Chamber of Commerce’s “Role Model of the Year” award for his work in the community.

Among the work he has done in the Memphis area and across the country is a Christmas toy drive for children from single-parent households, a fundraiser for the Stax Music Academy, and a literacy awareness campaign.

He starred for two seasons at Connecticut from 2004-06, averaging 13.6 points per game and 5.9 rebounds. The 6-9 native of Baltimore, Md., went on to be drafted 8th overall by the Houston Rockets, but was traded to the Memphis Grizzlies, where he has spent the duration of his career to this point.

Gay competed with the United States at the 2010 FIBA World Championship, a team that won gold for the US for the first time since 1994.

Calhoun’s charity game, which Gay will take part in this year, has been an annual hit, featuring past Connecticut stars, including Ray Allen, Emeka Okafor, Ben Gordon, Caron Butler, and Richard Hamilton.

This year’s game will take place Saturday, August 4, at 7:30 PM.

Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_