clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

UConn 53, Butler 41: Huskies revel in the simple life

Not even the ugliest national championship game in recent memory could sully the perfect ending to the perfect postseason.

No snide remark can cast a pall over one of the most remarkable runs college basketball has ever seen; no flaw of their final competition can besmirch this absolutely epic turnaround, from ninth in its own conference to the unquestioned best in country; no historically bad shooting performance can cheapen perhaps the greatest moment in UConn sports history.

Now, nothing stands between the Huskies and impossible.

Something that took so much strife, struggle and success; so many ebbs and flows and twists and turns; so many games -- more than any one college basketball team has ever been put through in a singular season -- can all be boiled down into something so very simple:

The UConn Huskies are national champions.

But unlike in the past two times Jim Calhoun strolled across the stage to accept the trophy and raise it high above his head for all of Connecticut to see, this one was arrived at by much different circumstances.

These Huskies -- these goddamn lovable Huskies, a team so easily embraced, a team you're always proud to call your own  -- gave fans, and more importantly, Calhoun, something that haven't so very, very long: simplicity.

Ever since Emeka Okafor and Co. tore through the tournament in 2004, establishing, along with the women's team, this school as one of the elite in college basketball, this state as one of college athletics' upper crust, so much has been expected. They've been expected to recruit the best. They've been expected to not only win, but excel.

But the crown has been far heavier than expected of late. Despite his history of success, Calhoun was called out after last season's team -- buoyed by two of the Big East's best talents whom had tasted success the season prior -- failed to meet such lofty preseason expectations. And after allegations and accusations began to hail down from the NCAA infractions committee, the ability of Calhoun, also burdened by ever-concerning health issues, to corral those blue-chip recruits that every program lives on was called into question.

In the eyes of many, the same program that was once hailed as one of the new stalwarts of college basketball six seasons before was now a crumbling empire.

But in the wake of 2009-10, a campaign defined by untapped talent and the debilitating effects of toxic personalities, Calhoun stripped everything back down again and spent this 41-game journey building it back to what it used to be.

He replaced headaches with heart, recruiting not necessarily elite-level stars, but above-average raw talent that, most of all, was willing to be coached. But the first move he made following the bitter ending to the last season was the most important. Soon after a loss to Virginia Tech in the second round of last year's NIT, Calhoun said he turned to the one person he knew could get back what was lost somewhere along the line.

"At the end of last season, Coach gave me the keys, and I just drove," Kemba Walker said.

All the way to the top.

Walker has been, without a doubt, the driving force behind any and all success this team has had this season. One of the five most prolific scorers in the nation with one of the highest usage rates, the effects of his on-court production go without saying. But the Huskies never make it to the Final Four, let alone past the first round or even to the tournament at all, without Walker embracing the role of the unquestioned leader that day.

From then on, Calhoun and Kemba have established a trust unlike any I've seen (or, perhaps, cared to acknowledge) between a college coach and player. Throughout the tournament, Calhoun has listened to Kemba's advice when making season-altering decisions. He turned to Kemba in the key possession against Kentucky. And he admitted afterward that he did the same Monday night.

It's that same level of trust, that same level of sheer devotion that they share for one another that has seeped down to the freshmen core, creating a team hierarchy where there once was anarchy. The Hall of Fame coach leads, Walker is the star player, Jeremy Lamb and Alex Oriakhi serve as the high-profile help and everyone else does his part.

It's that simple.

That same type of simplicity carried the Huskies all the way from close to the bottom of the Big East to Houston. And amidst all the muck and missed shots of this championship game, it's the one thing that shined through.

For the second straight game, all-world Walker was held to mere mortal levels on offense, finishing with just 16 points on 5-for-17 shooting (although, he did manage to redeem himself on the boards -- a hustle stat --  snagging nine rebounds, eight of which coming on the defensive end). And with the Bulldogs committing only 17 personal fouls, the Huskies only took 16 shots from the free throw line. UConn also turned it over more almost twice as much, hit just one of its 11 3-point heaves and had to sit both Oriakhi and Lamb for around half of the first half because of foul trouble.

But what worked was UConn at its most basic.

On offense against a much shorter Butler team, the Huskies pounded it inside. UConn outscored the Bulldogs 26-2 in the paint, and Oriakhi (11 points on 5-for-6 shooting, 11 rebounds), who despite his prodigious rebounding skills is still underdeveloped offensively, looked like Hakeem Olajuwon in the second half, backing his defender down in the post and banking in baby hookshots. And on defense, the Huskies used their unreal length to simply dominate the interior, holding the Bulldogs to just 3-for-31 shooting from inside the arc -- an absolutely astounding number.

Announcers noted and Calhoun joked after that the game was like a clash of old-school football, with the two teams playing great defense and pounding it inside. A slobberknocker, Good Olde Jim Ross would call it.

More appropriately though, it's UConn basketball.

While Walker's emergence as one of the best scorers in college basketball has helped fuel the Huskies' re-emergence as an elite-level outfit, their ability to do all the little things, all the tough tasks, no matter what the situation, has them poised to raise their third banner. Getting to the line, crashing the boards, playing defense -- UConn simply owns the hustle stats.

Which, more than anything else, has led UConn to that unparalleled undefeated record in one-and-done situations.

When their backs are against the wall, the Huskies find a way to win.

"As long as we play hard, great things happen for us," Walker said.


Could it really be that simple?

Better yet, could Walker's words be any more Calhoun-esque?

The Hall of Fame coach hailing from the tough-as-nails neighborhood in Massachusetts has built his empire around his personality, preaching, like all coaches, the exploits of hustling, playing defense, running, hard work, etc. So it's no surprise, then, that Calhoun calls this championship, built from the ground up on those very things, perhaps the greatest in his 39-year coaching career.

"This has been as sweet a ride as I've been on in my life," he said.

If you were lucky enough to follow this team and watch it grow from the preseason primordial ooze, when it was picked to finish 10th in its own conference, you know the feeling, too

Coming off such a dismal campaign, you only hoped for some fun again, something new and exciting that you could embrace and have hope for. You felt the joy when they shockingly excelled, watching excitedly as they road a successful four-game jaunt in Maui the top in the college basketballl world, once again. And your heart ached as you watched it all fall apart in a blaze of zone-fueled dismay.

So to see everyone streak across the screen as the buzzer sounds and the star-spangled confetti fall from the sky, and watch as Calhoun, smile emblazoned across his face, seek out and embrace his players ... it gave you, if you're like me, a sense of accomplishment, even if you gave nothing back but your support; a sense of pride absent for almost entire year.

That, more than anything, will be my lasting memory of this 2010-11 season.

We won't remember all the missed shots or dragged-out possessions. We'll have the joy, the moments, the memories.

We'll have the simple things.

And that's all I could ever ask for.