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Jim Calhoun building another winner at University of St. Joseph

After a strong inaugural season, Calhoun led the Blue Jays to an NCAA tournament appearance in year two.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

If Dan Hurley is the carpenter, then what does that make Jim Calhoun? The developer, contractor, and agent?

Like Hurley, Calhoun is in year two and trying to win while fitting a college basketball program to his desired culture and disposition.

Also, like Hurley, he has done this before. In 1986-87 Calhoun took over a struggling UConn program and went 9-19. Most Huskies fans know what happened next. Despite another tough go in Big East play, the Huskies finished 20-14 overall and won the NIT Championship. The season laid the foundation for a perpetual postseason machine, four National Championships, and a place in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Now, in year two of his latest venture, Calhoun is a champion yet again. He and his University of Saint Joseph Blue Jays took home the 2019-20 GNAC Conference Championship at home, 88-84, over Albertus Magnus on Sunday, Mar. 1.

The game was streamed on D3hoops.com, rather than telecast by ESPN. Despite 273 career wins and several league titles titles, Falcons’ head coach Mitch Oliver was not mistaken for John Thompson or Jim Boeheim on the opposing bench. But for Calhoun and USJ, it is a terrific short-term validation of a chance they took together roughly two years ago.

For the unaware: Calhoun stepped down from his head coaching post at UConn in 2012, and with his resume, seemed to have finalized an exceptional coaching career.

Despite a legacy secured, he chose to come back to coaching at the age of 76. “Seduced by the game”, he’s claimed.

But Calhoun did not just return to coaching college basketball. He returned to coach Division III basketball. At a school that did not have male students, let alone a team, until 2018.

The trials and tribulations of getting the USJ program off the ground have been well-documented. Calhoun has used his cachet to acquire resources, and brought together a strong coaching staff including industry veteran and associate head coach Glen Miller, assistant and 1999 national champion Rashamel Jones, former Fairfield player Ryan Olander (Yes, the brother of Tyler), and his own son Jeff.

On the court, the appeal to play for Calhoun and all that comes with it has yielded some of the best of the best in local Division III talent as well.

“From a recruiting perspective, they have landed scholarship caliber players,” said ESPN National Recruiting Analyst and NERR Founder Adam Finkelstein. “A big part of that was obviously the allure of Coach Calhoun, but equally important was just how visible and active he was himself on the recruiting trail, particularly in that season before they started playing games.”

This year the Blue Jays have freshman guard Taelon Martin, who early in his career was a nationally ranked recruit by some outlets (and a possible candidate to transfer to Division I), former Weaver High School standout Jaecee Martin, who came from Division I Sacred Heart, and others from prestigious basketball prep schools and grassroots teams.

This has not been a “show up for the check” role where Calhoun yields a head coach position in title only.

“When you saw the way Coach Calhoun was recruiting, it was clear how invested he was,” said Finkelstein, “He was literally everywhere, probably more visible than any other college coach in the region at any level. You put those two factors together, along with decades worth of relationships, and it enabled them to land immediately impactful talent.”

Still, in the perpetual churn of lower-level college basketball, the Blue Jays did not retain former BC transfer and big man Mike Sagay, or guard Chris Childs, their leading scorer, from their debut season. There were other separations as well, making the season-to-season improvement even more impressive.

Delshawn Jackson Jr., a sophomore guard from Hartford and Prince Tech, starts in the backcourt with Martin. His 22 points-per-game and accuracy from long range (41.5 percent three-point shooting) power a potent USJ scoring attack.

That Blue Jays’ offense scored 90.4 points-per-game, ninth in all of DIII. Despite some time away to watch and observe the evolution of the game (See: More 3-pointers, less post-play), Calhoun’s teams follow the archetype he created in Storrs. Get at the rim and score, or at least get fouled trying.

While at UConn, Calhoun largely eschewed the analytics-driven trend to launch 3-pointers. Sure, it was a different game, but the math is the same then as it is now. From 2001-02 through 2010-11, his UConn teams finished below 300th nationally in three-point attempt percentage (3PA%). His final two seasons in Storrs, the Huskies were no. 257 (2011-12) and No. 258 (2012-13), still in the bottom 25 percent.

By the end of their conference championship win, 457 of the Blue Jays’ 1825 field goal attempts were 3-pointers, a 25.0 3PA%. Compared to Division I, only two teams had a lower mark (Florida A&M at 23.8 and Cleveland State at 22.4). The 25.0 is in the dregs of DIII as well, albeit not quite the very bottom. In their own conference, no other GNAC team even attempted fewer than 500 threes, the next lowest being Norwich at 510. Jim Calhoun doesn’t appear to have ever been inclined to check out the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.

Still, at UConn, Calhoun’s teams were perennially among the nation’s best in effective field goal percentage (a statistic that accounts for the extra value from a three-point shot.) USJ’s 2019-20 eFG% mark of 56.2 percent would be fourth overall if placed into Division I and presumably high for Division III if such a ranking existed. If you prefer traditional field-goal percentage, the Blue Jays shot 51.8 percent, which would be second in Division I, and IS second in all of DIII. The Huskies also get to the line with volume. In total free throw attempts, St. Joseph’s was ninth (668).

Like a classic team Calhoun should, the team is playing staunch defense. USJ led the GNAC in blocks-per-game (5.4, seventh nationally) and points allowed (71.2 points per game).

To put up high-level numbers, a year-to-year improvement was both required and delivered. USJ has better marks in points per game (90.4 from 85.1), assists (16.9 to 16.1), turnovers (14.1 to 15) and opponent field goal percentage (39.2 percent from 41.2 percent) compared to last season. As an added bonus, attendance was 7,063 per game, a seven-percent bump.

Even though Calhoun is working with different ingredients, he’s cooking up the same results. With so many different variables in play, the outcome of the proposition to launch USJ Men’s Basketball was never a guaranteed success. Still, a league title in year two is an undeniably great start.

Calhoun cannot up and decide USJ as regional top-dog for DII, but he can position them well for the future. Last Friday, the Blue Jays made their NCAA tournament debut, but couldn’t get past Hobart College. The Statesmen took down USJ 78-74 in the first round, but Calhoun and the Blue Jays still have a talented core that should remain competitive for years to come.

“Coach Calhoun is obviously St. Joe’s niche right now and whenever he leaves, they’ll need to figure out an identity beyond that,” said Finkelstein, “but they’re going to have the benefit of building off of a championship culture and highly talented roster, so I think as long as basketball remains a priority for the school, they have a good chance to do that.”