Did Jim Calhoun see this coming? Did he even feel it might happen this holiday weekend?
Sure seems that way now.
As the Battle 4 Atlantis opened, Calhoun questioned UConn’s collective hunger, its appetite to gut out gritty wins against even the little schools who would “make a nice headline for themselves” by slaying his NCAA beast. The coach admitted his elite squad arrived on Paradise Island toting “a championship hangover,” lacking the inner furnace critical not just to repeat as college kings, but simply to compete nightly. And in the Big East, that kind of snoozy attitude is pure basketball suicide.
Like what happened yesterday.
In what seemed – at court side – like a basketball blink, the University of Central Florida tapped some of Michael Jordan’s DNA, gobbling up and spitting out UConn’s 17-point, late edge. The Knights’ killer instinct – a trait Calhoun desperately wants to see in his boys – was injected by none other than point guard Marcus Jordan, M.J.’s son, who scored 17 in the second half and held UConn’s vaunted guard, Shabazz Napier, to 2 for 7 from the floor as UCF humbled the Huskies 68-63. When one of the Huskies taunted Jordan that he “would miss” before two critical late free-throws, Michael Jordan’s boy thought about the clutch gene he received from his dad. No he wasn’t going to miss, he told the UConn trash talker: “It’s in my blood.” He canned both.
UConn’s needs that same steely mentality. Come to think of it, maybe the Huskies should have avoided the Atlantis water park this week. Calhoun even joked days ago about 6-9 forward’s Roscoe Smith’s “Leap of Faith” slide plunge, saying “he screamed all the way down.” How prophetic. UConn needed to treat this tourney on Paradise Island not as a pleasure trip with hoops mixed in but as serious business trip.
This afternoon, Calhoun’s players – No. 4 in the nation when they packed their swimsuits and sunscreen a few days ago – must prove they can take a fat smack to their heads – and their egos. They meet Florida State at 2 p.m. in, of all places, the loser’s bracket. The gnawing feeling in Nassau: the Huskies’ season may be on the line. At least in terms of team psychology. The reason: Calhoun gets to see today if his boys can fall and then rise again. Another necessary survival trait in the upper reaches of NCAA men’s bball. Defensive monster Florida State could offer the perfect hangover cure for UConn.
In calling Friday’s loss to UCF a “complete disaster” and “just surreal to watch,” Calhoun singled out his team’s late defensive lapses, allowing the Knights and Jordan to shoot 80 percent during the final 15 minutes. Every hoops player knows offense is fueled by skill and well-practiced sets. Defense? That’s just plain grunt work.
“We pride ourselves on defensive and obviously it wasn’t very good,” Calhoun said. “We’ve lost games to comebacks. The point is, we stopped playing … How we lost is very disheartening.
“The only positive thing is it will certainly be a very, very good training point. Hopefully we’ll learn from this.” Then he paused and added: “We have to. We play (today) … There’s no sense in me yelling and screaming at them. We have a game (today.) This isn’t the end. We’ll go on.”
Also today, UConn gets freshman guard Ryan Boatright back following a six-game NCAA suspension for receiving improper benefits from the school. Yet even that star-in-the-making “is not going to solve” the Huskies’ defensive softness, the coach said. His players, he emphasized, “can’t just stop playing (and figure we can) impose our will on people. The problem I never thought we’d have is stopping other people.”
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