Can Connecticut Win It All?

It's a question even Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun can't answer to right now. The 20-year UConn coach knows his team can win a national championship, but will they? After two uncharacteristic losses last week by Duke, most of the nation is pointing a finger at UConn as the favorite heading into the NCAA Tournament. Unquestionably, top to bottom the two-time national champs have the talent to reach Indianapolis.

But as we all know this game is about more than talent.


Calhoun put it quite simply Wednesday on ESPN's Pardon the Interruption, "We need to hide what we aren't, and accentuate what we are." The Huskies ARE one of the best power teams in the country, what they aren't is a terrific ball-handling team that can beat you off the dribble.


"We have to do it in other ways on the full court break or with our power game inside. South Florida took us out of what we should've run and we stopped setting screens, stopped doing some of the things we're capable of doing. I keep telling our team a thousand times we're not a team of one-down breakdown individuals – we're much more a team of execution," said Calhoun immediately following the win at South Florida.


Over the last few weeks we've witnessed some of the chinks in the armor. At times UConn's execution has been brilliant, but at other times the Huskies have lacked focus. South Florida gave Calhoun's squad fits, and Louisville did its best to wreck senior day. The Bulls and Cardinals seemed to be able to impose their wills too easily.


"We're going to have to work on execution tomorrow, the next day and continue because it's fine when we're running. It's not quite as fine in the half court set -- yet I've seen us in the half court set be brilliant. So we're basically going to have to do a much better job with that," stated Calhoun.

Some critics have expressed concerns because UConn does not seem to have that go-to-guy. Most thought sophomore Rudy Gay would emerge as that player consistently but it just hasn't happened. Instead, the Huskies have a multitude of go-to-guys and that player varies from game-to-game and sometimes half-to-half. You'll never hear me tell you it's a negative that UConn has five to six guys who can get 20 on any given night. That's the type of balance you need to survive an off night during NCAA tournament play. But it certainly does make it interesting for a coach when his team is struggling and needs a basket.


"I'm not sure we truly have a guy we'd run five plays in a row to. Three plays – three out of four plays," Calhoun continued. "We have a lot of good players but unfortunately we have three really wings and we have three really good big men, and a good point guard. If the waiver wire was out there you'd probably trade a wing and one of your big guys for a second guard who also could make some other break down plays which would help all of our team."


But the waiver wire is not an option in college basketball so Calhoun chooses to concentrate on how he can best utilize the weapons he does have, and not allow the opponent to expose flaws.


"We have weaknesses we know that. We've got to become an execution team, particularly on a team that comes up and ball pressures us and just plays us and says beat me off the dribble. And you can but they're daring you to try and take you out of your offense. It's a perceived weakness."


UConn will have to be prepared to take everyone's best punch but before you sound any alarms remember, only two teams have successfully "exposed" UConn this season. The Huskies have fared well against some of the nation's best competition and are 16-2 against teams ranked in the top 100 of the RPI. So there's plenty of reason to believe dreams of a national title are not far-fetched.


Another concern is UConn's inability to close out opponents. Against South Florida, they were up 18-0. Against Louisville they had an eight point lead. The longer a team hangs around in the NCAA tournament the more you're flirting with going home…for good.


Calhoun expressed that concern after the South Florida game.


"To be honest with you we just have to do a better job of executing against the teams. We have but we weren't tonight and the thing that scares me always the most, the things I caution our players on, is that next week you go home-- home from the Big East Tournament. And the next time you go home we pack up the uniforms. This team is good enough to get to Indianapolis. Will it get to Indianapolis? I have no idea," Calhoun concluded.


You can talk about the weaknesses and trying to punch holes in the Huskies lineup but the positives outweigh the negatives. Calhoun has a team with experience, talent, and toughness. Three players have really shown the desire to step up in the last two weeks; senior Denham Brown, senior Rashad Anderson, and junior Josh Boone. Coincidentally, all three own championship rings.


UConn's ability to execute will be tested this week in the Garden, first against Syracuse, a team the Huskies handled rather easily in two prior meetings this season.


Big East Tournament titles are important in Storrs for many reasons. Some coaches don't emphasize conference tournament success -- Jim Calhoun does. The Hall of Famer believes in the momentum garnered via a title in Madison Square Garden, and has the proof to show why. During Calhoun's tenure, the worst the Huskies have fared in the Big Dance after winning the Big East Tournament was a disappointing Sweet 16 loss to Mississippi State in 1996. Every other year UConn has reached at least the Elite Eight.





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