For what feels like the 10th straight season, UConn head coach Jim Calhoun’s health will force him to miss time. Calhoun, who is 70 years old, has a painful condition known as spinal stenosis that was aggravated on UConn’s loss at Georgetown this week. This isn’t something new, either. Calhoun strongly considered getting surgery when he was suspended for three games at the start of Big East play.
UConn made the announcement on Friday afternoon, and the overwhelming sentiment was that this could end up being the beginning of the end of Calhoun’s career. He’s 70. His health has been less than ideal over the last decade. And, after a disastrous performance against Georgetown extended UConn’s losing streak to four games and dropped them to 4-5 in Big East play, Calhoun looks like he may finally be regretting returning to coach again instead of riding off into the sunset as a national champion after last season.
If that wasn’t bad enough, every analyst in the country seemed to be throwing in the towel on the UConn season.
The Huskies are a team with a chronic lack of leadership, a group that simply does not appear to hold each other accountable for their mistakes. Should we really expect the Huskies to become less dysfunctional when their fiery head coach, who couldn’t get anyone on this team to replace Kemba Walker’s leadership in the first place, has to leave the team?
But despite having their coach watching the game couch side and even with Andre Drummond buried on the bench early with two fouls, UConn easily handled a short-handed Seton Hall team 69-46. Beating the Pirates, who have now lost six straight games, without Herb Pope is already an impressive achievement, but it does allow us to question whether Calhoun’s leave could end up being a good thing for UConn.
The biggest of UConn’s problems are fixable — they aren’t playing with any effort or urgency, seeming to be more worried about how much time they spend on the being (Alex Oriakhi) and how they are shooting the basketball (Shabazz Napier and Jeremy Lamb). Talent isn’t the problem for UConn; as Calhoun said after the loss to Georgetown, its “their will and their want”. And what better way to convince the defending national champions to play hard and play for each other than to present them with the very real possibility of missing the NCAA Tournament.
Oriakhi is the elder statesmen on this team, but he’s spent too much time this season sulking about his playing time; UConn’s best lineup is when Andre Drummond is the center and either Tyler Olander or Roscoe Smith joins him in the front court. Oriakhi has had a tough time going from arguably the most valuable non-Kemba UConn player last season to a role player and the second-best option at his position.
But against Seton Hall, Oriakhi had 10 points and eight boards, making some impressive post moves — one of the first times he showed aggression this season — and playing as well as he has all year long. This came a day after he called a player’s only meeting to let his team know just how much it hurts to miss the NCAA Tournament. “I told guys if I’m not playing I’ll be biggest cheerleader. I just want to win,” Oriakhi said on Saturday. UConn also got 19 points, five assists and four steals from the dynamic Ryan Boatright, who looked like a much more dangerous playmaker than he did in his first game back from a second suspension this season.
Some of UConn’s issues were still quite evident on Saturday. They turned the ball over 16 times. They shot 2-13 from three. Jeremy Lamb was just 3-10 from the floor and Shabazz Napier, while snapping an 0-18 shooting slump, was just 1-6 from the field.
The answer clearly isn’t known yet, but the question has to be asked: can Calhoun’s leave be the turning point for the UConn season?
Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.