No Kemba This Time Around

STORRS, Conn. – Jim Calhoun is feeling better. No doubt about it. When he can poke fun at himself, it's a good sign for Connecticut basketball.

Monday, before the Huskies held practice at Gampel Pavilion and then set sail for the New York, Calhoun passed along a story about someone telling him it was great the Hall of Fame coach could be at the Big East tournament.

"I said, ‘Actually, you'd be better off having Kemba here,' " Calhoun said, drawing laughter from reporters. "And I mean that very honestly."

That would be Kemba Walker, of course. And it's hard not to think about the enthusiastic and competitive former UConn guard at this time of year. Last March, Walker lifted the Huskies on his back and carried them to five victories in five days – and the Big East tournament championship - at Madison Square Garden.

No one had ever done it before. No one is sure that it will ever happen again. But the goal for the Huskies is to try again.

"What has been said at practice [in recent days] is that ‘We know how to do it,' " associate head coach George Blaney said. "Whether or not we can do it [again], . . . to me it's still the most unbelievable thing I've seen in basketball. I don't know if you're ever going to see that again."

It's ironic that UConn's path starts with the same first round opponent as last season – DePaul. The Huskies (18-12) are the No. 9 seed and DePaul (12-18) is the No. 16 seed. The winner gets No. 8 West Virginia (19-12) in the second round at noon Wednesday.

Just walking into the Garden will stir up memories for those Huskies who joined with Walker to win the Big East last season.

"We know anything can happen," sophomore forward Alex Oriakhi said. "Obviously, it's possible we could win the thing. But we can't go in there thinking we're going to win it all like last year.

"This year I think we have a lot more to prove. Last year we ended the [regular] season better than we did this year. This year, I think people are counting us out. We just want to prove people wrong."

UConn's victory over Pittsburgh Saturday has taken some of the pressure off the Huskies. Based on their strength of schedule and their record against the nation's top 100 teams, the Huskies appear headed for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Of course, every win solidifies that position a little more.

And losing to DePaul would be a big slip up for the Huskies. The Huskies beat the Blue Demons 80-54 during the regular season. Shabazz Napier had 14 points, 11 assists, six rebounds, two steals and two turnovers. UConn took advantage of DePaul's man-to-man defense to get the ball inside.

"We want to get the ball inside, we want to run – especially the bigs," Blaney said. "But we also don't want to get into a rat game. That's what they did with Seton Hall [Saturday] and they just kicked Seton Hall. But it's an important game and we're going down to get a win.

"I would be really, really disappointed if we're not in the NCAA already. I don't see how we're not. But I would always rather not leave it up to anybody in the [selection] committee room."

As for Calhoun, who admitted Monday that he used a cane while he was on his medical leave of absence, he was tired Sunday and didn't join the team at practice. But one week after having back surgery to correct his spinal stenosis condition, he said he is trying to "recapture his body" and ready to coach under tournament conditions.

How would Calhoun hold up if he has to coach three or four days in a row?

"Give me a chance," he said. "Give me a chance. Thanks."

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