How we got here: UConn's highly-seeded trips through the tourney

Kevin, Justin and I do what we can to cover UConn, but despite all we bring to the table (youth, vigor, stunning good looks), sometimes it helps to have a broader perspective. To that end (and in the spirit of reverse nepotism) my father and Hoop Tales: UConn Huskies Basketball co-author Robert Porter, occasionally drops by to give us some historical perspective. Today he's offering a brief recap of UConn's highly-seeded trips to the tournament during Jim Calhoun's tenure. Enjoy.

As one who has followed UConn basketball very closely for over 50 years (I went to my first game in 1958), I've come to believe that the emotions of those who care the most are similar to those of the players and coaches, and these mindsets often become self-fulfilling prophecies. 

UConn's 2011 NCAA participation marks the 11th time in past 22 seasons the Huskies have been seeded third or higher (in every prior  year UConn was a 1 or a 2), but the emotions of the intense part of the fan base have differed wildly. Below I have recounted each year's experience and found the one year that matches up with 2011:

1990, No. 1 seed, emotional mindset: EUPHORIC

Even with two national championships since then, there has never been a month to top March, 1990 -- the capper on the dream season.  Only this year's team came close to the ecstasy of wining the Big East Tournament with back-to-back weekend afternoon wins over Georgetown and Syracuse (both seen nationally as more powerful then than now). The NCAA selection sent UConn to Hartford for the first two rounds, setting off a frenzy among the Husky faithful with lots of newcomers.  Of course it was the ‘novelty' of it all, a bit like your first love or first kiss.

The 4 NCAA games that follow remain etched in memory of all Husky fans now over age 35 or so.  The Hartford games became ‘party time' with a small parade to start and two easy romps. The regionals in the Meadowlands ended with two buzzer beaters, the first by UConn, and the second done to them. Cheers, tears, that month remains like none other since.

1994, No. 2 seed, emotional mindset: CONFIDENT

This was probably a more talented team than the 1990 squad, perhaps the 3rd or 4th most talented UConn team ever.  It reached as high as no. 2 in national rankings and an unexpected early exit in BET did not seem to matter for much.

The opening two NCAA rounds were both wins, each a bit tougher than expected. However, when top-seed North Carolina was upset by BC, it seemed like UConn's first Final Four was in the bag.  But a truly dreadful OT loss to Florida -- UConn blew a 10 point second-half lead, capped off by two missed foul shots with 3 seconds to go in regulation -- became a harbinger of some painful years to come.

1995, No. 2 seed, emotional mindset: HOPEFUL

This team wasn't as talented as the one before it or one after it. It did reach a number one ranking but blow-out losses at Kansas and at home to Villanova plus another early BET exit were reality checks. 

They were sent to the west and did well but fell in in Oakland against eventual national champion UCLA in the regional finals.  It was the first, but not the last time a regional final was lost in a de facto road game. 

1996, No. 1 seed, emotional mindset: ANXIOUS

This was Ray Allen's last UConn season.  It featured a 23-game win streak, much of the year ranked in top three nationally, and a thrilling BET final that ended with UConn scoring the last 12 points to top Georgetown by 1. But a half-decade of high-profile chokes meant most Husky fans were waiting for the floor to drop out.

Sure enough that NCAA fear came through. A much-tougher-than-expected opening round win also had a key injury.  UConn needed a come-from-behind effort to make it to the Sweet 16. Once there, UConn faced a Mississippi State team running on all cylinders and lost by 5. It was a bittersweet end to the playing days of Ray Allen as a Husky.

1998, No. 2, emotional mindset:  MIFFED

An excellent team that won 31 games, the Big East regular season and BET, all to see Selection Sunday as the two seed in east with one seed North Carolina and regional final in the state of North Carolina. Dick Vitale said right then, "Jimmy Calhoun won't be happy with this draw."

Alas, it played out exactly to form. The nine point loss to UNC in regional final was the fifth time in 9 seasons UConn was seeded first or second and failed to reach Final Four. By now the term U'Cant was in some sports tabloids.

1999, No. 1, emotional mindset: ANTICIPATORY

"The only thing we have to fear - is fear itself."  With the whole team back, the Huskies opened with 19 straight wins, much of it ranked no. 1. After a romp through the BET, only UConn's own demons seemed in the way.  Duke was the top seed in east with over 30 wins in a row, so UConn was sent west.

Everything went well for three rounds as several high seeds were knocked off, but the old fear returned when 11 seed Gonzaga stayed right with ten-and-a-half point favorite UConn until the final minute. After a decade of false-starts, the Huskies finally earned their first trip to the Final Four. Once there the pressure seemed to disappear, and UConn added the perfect capper with a thrilling upset win over heavily favored Duke for the first national title. 

2002, No. 2, emotional mindset: DELIGHTED

A good regular season was topped by a much better BET, including a last-second win over Villanova and a classic 2OT win over rugged Pitt, the first of three straight BET battles.  UConn, barely ranked in top 25 going into BET, was rewarded with a 2 seed in east.

The opening rounds were in Washington, D.C. with a tight 2nd-round win over NC State led by all-around star Caron Butler. The bad news was, again, the best team in USA was top seed in UConn's regional.  After winning in the Sweet 16, an extremely powerful Maryland team awaited. UConn actually had a 3-point lead in closing minutes, but could not hold on. It was the only tough challenge for eventual national champ Maryland who breezed through the Final Four.

2004, No. 2, emotional mindset: COCKY

This was the most talented team in college basketball and the coach and players knew it going in.  Only six regular season losses, mainly due to Emeka Okafor injuries, kept the seed as 2, not 1.  But as soon as another BET thriller win over Pitt in final win was in the books, most experts picked UConn to win it all.

They did - and pretty easily.  The only NCAA drama was falling well behind Duke in Final Four semis, which required a furious and exciting rally in last four minutes.  The rest was pretty much a cakewalk.

2006 No. 1, emotional mindset: TREPIDATION

Sometime in his rocking chair, with 40-plus years of coaching behind him, Jim Calhoun might shake his head and say this was his most puzzling team. Talent wise this might have been best UConn team ever, but it never felt like it, especially after Syracuse upset the Huskies in the BET opener.

All that will be remembered from this NCCA was the OT loss to George Mason, but we should have seen it coming.  The shock of being down to 16th seed Albany was the precursor and a week later it took a buzzer beater to force OT and win over Washington.  It never felt right with this team.

2009, No. 1, emotional mindset: PENSIVE

Yes, this team did make the Final Four, a pleasant recent memory, but going into the NCAA there was a mix of concerns.  Two decisive regular season losses to Pitt, the 6OT loss to Syracuse and a Yahoo! sports report of a recruiting scandal hung over the team, and that was before you considered the genuine fear of one team in the west region - Memphis. The Tigers were national runners-up the prior year and with a long winning streak looked even stronger in 2009.

Of course it turned out quite well. In the regionals Missouri upset Memphis and UConn knocked off the Tigers to reach their thirdFinal Four. Nice ending but far from a calm emotional route to get there.

2011, No. 3, emotional mindset: THRILLED

You know why you are presently thrilled as you read this.  Five days/nights in mid-town Manhattan have sent the Huskies flying into the tournament.  If it was ever possible to say UConn had a successful season even before the tournament, this was it.

The present mood is probably only topped by 1990, but I find myself thinking of another year.  Look above to 2002, as it is almost scary how similar this year is to nine years ago:

  • Team led by a scoring superstar - Caron Butler and Kemba
  • A tension packed BET game with Pitt, won by a dramatic shot
  • The first two rounds sending UConn to Washington, DC
  • The star surrounded by a young but quickly maturing team

We will see how it sorts out very soon. I'd settle for 2002 again, meaning a trip to the Elite 8 and close loss to the eventual national champ, which is quite possible.  But for the moment, most Husky fans are just plain happy as for the 16th total time in the Calhoun years we are NCAA bound!

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