Monday, March 28, 2011

UConn On the Verge of History

Lost in the madness that are the Cinderella like runs of the VCU Rams and the Butler Bulldogs has been the story of the UConn Huskies, a team that heading into the Big East tournament on March 8th had lost 4 of its last 5 games and was very much at risk of being left out of the NCAA Tournament.  That losing streak is all in the past now as since that opening game of the Big East Tournament against DePaul the UConn Huskies have won 9 straight games in 19 days and are just 2 wins away from one of the best turnaround stories in College Basketball history.

Head coach Jim Calhoun, who has been the head coach at UConn for 25 years put it best during an interview with the New York Daily News when he said, "I've been fortunate over 39 years to have a lot of teams do a lot of different things, but never could I imagine the team winning nine games in tournament play in 19 days.  These brothers, this unique group of young guys, have just given me a thrill beyond compare."

Even the players themselves admitted that what they have accomplished so far is truly special, "I didn't know what to expect after losing four out of five and everybody's confidence was down," sophomore center Alex Oriakhi said to the Boston Herald. "But we had two great practices before we went off to the Big East Tournament. (Calhoun) said, 'I'm not going to quit on you guys, I'm not going to let you quit.' ... That changed everything."

After winning the Big East Tournament by winning 5 games in 5 nights UConn earned a #3 seed in the NCAA Tournament and were immediately targeted by "bracketologists" as being a weak 3 seed and a possible early upset pick.  I remember watching the CBS preview show before the tournament started and hearing Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Seth Davis talk about how UConn wouldn't be able to keep their momentum going as they would be exhausted both mentally and emotionally after winning 5 games in 5 nights.

One of the big reasons so many people were doubting the Huskies is because the team was being carried by player of the year candidate junior guard Kemba Walker all season long.  Walker was looked at as being the only scoring option on the team and it was thought that if you could shut him down then the rest of the team would fold.  There was also concern about the fact that UConn starts 3 freshmen (guard Jeremy Lamb as well as forwards Tyler Olander and Roscoe Smith). Yet so far the freshmen have played great and no one has been able to slow down Walker as he is averaging 26.3 points per game so far during the tournament and has continued to hit clutch shot after clutch shot.

But Walker hasn't had to do it all by himself as other players on the team have stepped up their level of play to take some of the pressure off of him.  Jeremy Lamb, who averaged just 9.6 points per game during the regular season, has blossomed into a legitimate second option and is chipping in with 16 points per game so far in the NCAA tournament.  Even Walker's backup, freshman guard Shabazz Napier, has been effective coming in for Walker during the West title game against Arizona and playing 30 minutes as well as scoring 10 crucial points.

Even Arizona's head coach Sean Miller acknowledged UConn's completeness as a team during an interview with, "for freshmen at this stage to hold their poise with what was at stake is a tremendous compliment and credit to them. That's why they're in the Final Four, because it's not just Kemba Walker. It's the overall team effort and poise that UConn has."

During their current 9 game winning streak UConn has beaten DePaul, Georgetown, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Louisville, Bucknell, Cincinnati, San Diego State and Arizona.  They are now 30-9 on the season and most impressively 21-0 against non-conference opponents yet they because they aren't a #11 or #8 seed they are being overlooked.  I understand why VCU and Butler are grabbing most of the attention but to overlook a team that has pulled off such a ridiculous run would be doing them a great disservice.

UConn is now just 2 wins away from winning a National Championship and completing a win-streak that seems like its right out of a movie.  A winning streak that would rank as one of the best tournament performances of any team in college basketball history.

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