UConn’s 5 Best Moments in the Big East

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5. Hiring of Jim Calhoun:

Prior to the hiring of UConn’s coaching legend, the Huskies had only made 2-Sweet 16 and 1-Elite 8 appearances in their school history. Joining the Big East and its stronger competition did not immediately help Connecticut rise through the collegiate ranks though. In fact, the 7 initial Big East seasons under Dom Perno did not result in a single-season win percentage over 70%.

There is no denying the impact and product Calhoun turned the program into. Growing the university into a national power, future NBA stars flocked to play for him. In his 26 years (1986-2012) as the UConn head coach, Calhoun amassed the following resume:

– 18 NCAA Tournament Appearances
– 13 Sweet 16 Appearances
– 9 Elite 8s
– 4 Finals Fours
– 3 National Titles (98-99’, 03-04’, 10-11’)
– 8 All-Americans (Ray Allen, Rudy Gay, Emeka Okafor, Richard ‘Rip’ Hamilton, Shabazz Napier, Kemba Walker, Hasheem Thabeet, and Donyell Marshall)

If the sheer numbers above don’t make you say wow, comparing them side by side with some of the greatest coaches during the same tenure will surely put things in perspective. The following table shows the coaches who were at a single school for at least 16 seasons between 1986-2012:

  # Tourney Appearences Sweet 16s Elite 8s Final Fours Titles
Calhoun/UConn 18 (69.2%) 13 (50.0%) 9 (34.6%) 4 (15.4%) 3 (11.5%)
Krzyzewski/Duke 25 (96.2%) 19 (73.1%) 11 (42.3%) 8 (30.8%) 4 (15.4%)
Boeheim/Syracuse 21 (80.8%) 12 (46.2%) 5 (19.2%) 3 (11.5%) 1 (3.8%)
Izzo/Michigan State * 15 (88.2%) 10 (58.8%) 7 (41.2%) 6 (35.3%) 1 (5.9%)
Huggins/Cincinnati ** 14 (87.5%) 4 (25.0%) 3 (18.8%) 1 (6.3%) 0
Donovan/Florida ** 12 (75.0%) 6 (37.5%) 5 (31.3%) 3 (18.8%) 2 (12.5%)
Montgomery/Stanford  *** 12 (66.7%) 4 (22.2%) 2 (11.1%) 1 (5.6%) 0

* 17 seasons for Izzo
** 16 seasons for both Huggins and Donovan
*** 18 seasons for Montgomery

Based on the performances at their respective programs, Calhoun can easily be regarded as the second-most accomplished coach from the list during this period. Extrapolating the data for Billy Donovan to 26 seasons would have given him 19 tournament appearences, 9 Sweet 16s, 8 Elite 8s, 4 Final Fours and 3 titles (very similar to Calhoun). However, this assumes constant success over this span and is not guaranteed. The main thing is UConn made an excellent decision to revitalize its program under Calhoun and can thank him for building the program for what it is today.

4. First National Title in School History

Calhoun’s presence in Storrs definitively increased the caliber of players attracted to the program. One in particular, Richard ‘Rip’ Hamilton, arrived on campus for the 96-97’ season and immediately showed his elite-level talent. To the tune of 15.9 points per game, Hamilton led the Huskies in scoring each year on campus. However, the 96’ team was the worst offensive group in Rip’s 3 years with Connecticut.

The addition of Khalid El-Amin in the 97-98’ season significantly improved both the offensive and defensive efficiency of the Huskies. At 16.0 PPG, El-Amin made for a dynamic backcourt partner with Hamilton. The pair helped to carry UConn to a 14-win improvement and a 32-win season (32-5). Connecticut failed to separate themselves from tournament opponents however, and suffered a double-digit loss to 1-seeded North Carolina in the Elite 8.

The luck turned for the Huskies in 1998. Improving from 25th/12th to 16th/5th in respective offensive and defensive ratings, UConn ran it back with Hamilton and El-Amin to record the second best record nationally (34-2 to Duke’s 37-2) and the highest win percentage (94.4%) on the year. The increased efficiency at both ends of the floor showed heavily in the NCAA tournament, grinding out wins in the Elite 8, Final Four and Championship game by a total of 14 points over Gonzaga, Ohio State and Duke.

The 3-point win over Duke was even more impressive when noting the Blue Devils future NBA-trio of Shane Battier, Elton Brand and Corey Maggette. Getting over the hump was huge for UConn, not only in securing their first title in school history, but to set the stage for what else was to come under Jim Calhoun’s tenure and the state of the program moving forward.

3. UConn’s Most Pro-Ready Team Notches Title #2

Like the first title run, the 2003-04’ UConn team had plenty of NBA-level talent on its roster: Emeka Okafor, Ben Gordon, Hilton Armstrong, Josh Boone, Charlie Villanueva and Marcus Williams. Collectively, this team was stout and featured 9 top-100 players on the roster. However, the Huskies did not have tons of success towards a title run until Villanueva, Boone and Williams arrived on campus in 2003.

After losing their last game of the regular season at #24 Syracuse, the team got hot winning the Big East tournament ahead of the NCAAs. Breezing through the Elite 8, UConn won every game by no less than 16 points over Alabama, Vanderbilt, DePaul and Vermont. It was the national semifinal game that provided their stiffest test.

Their opponent, Duke, featured future NBA stars Luol Deng and JJ Reddick, as well as NBA role players Shelden Williams, Chris Duhon, Shavlik Randolph and Daniel Ewing. Notably, Boone and Okafor did an excellent job of keeping Shelden Williams in check. Finishing with only 4 points and 6 rebounds, Williams struggled with foul trouble and his counterpart Randolph (13 points, 6 boards) did as well. The Huskies kept the Blue Devils uncomfortable from the outside to squeak a 79-78 win to reach the title game.

Facing Georgia Tech’s talented backcourt duo of Jarrett Jack and B.J. Elder, UConn focused on stopping GT’s guards. Limited to only 21 points, the Yellow Jackets were forced to rely on bench guard Will Bynum (17 points) to stay in range of this game. However, it was the dominant performance of Emeka Okafor (24 points, 15 rebounds) that sealed the victory and the second title in 5 years.

2. The Never Ending Game at MSG

The 2009 Big East conference tournament quarterfinal, between #3 UConn and #18 Syracuse, provided an instant classic in college basketball history. By the end of it, the game wound up as the longest game since the 1981 matchup between Cincinnati and Bradley.

A 6-OT thriller resulted in players collapsing on the court from sheer exhaustion, 8 players fouling out (4 from each team), and 244 total points. The drama and excitement from attempted buzzer-beaters and scoring deadlocks lasted until nearly 1:30 AM. The statistics from this game were mind-boggling:

– 10 players with 45+ minutes of action
– 6 players with 10+ rebounds, 143 total rebounds
– 7 players with 19+ points
– 209 total shot attempts
– Only 4 players had more than 1 three-pointer made
– 93 total free throw attempts
– 26 steals and blocks each
– 43 combined turnovers
– 65 offensive rebounds
– Syracuse did not hold a lead until the 6th OT period

The Huskies faltered in the final OT period and lost 127-117. Defense became an afterthought as the minutes ticked by, not from a lack of caring but a complete drain in energy. Freshman guard Kemba Walker shot 4-18 from the field (0-7 from 3) for 8 points, but his moment would come two years later in one of the greatest runs in NCAA tournament history.

1. Kemba Carries UConn in March

By his junior season, Kemba Walker had morphed into one of college basketball’s most electric guards. Averaging 23.5 PPG, 5.4 RPG and 4.5 APG, Kemba earned a selection to the All-American first team. His clutch performances in March though lifted his fame to another level.

The Huskies entered the conference tournament ranked 21st nationally, but only 9th best in the Big East. Blowing out DePaul and #22 Georgetown in the first two rounds, UConn took down #3 Pittsburgh 76-74 in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament. Pouring in 26 PPG through through the first 3 rounds, Walker one-upped himself with 33 in a semifinal win over #11 Syracuse. Cooling a tad in the conference title game, Kemba’s 19 points were just enough to secure a surprising win over Louisville.

The selection committee, rewarding the team with a 3-seed, noticed UConn’s success in the Big East tournament. Their first round matchup against Bucknell was an easy test, but soon followed that up with impressive wins over Cincinnati and San Diego State. Kemba bested his season average again with 29.0 PPG, including 33 against the #25 Bearcats and 36 over Kawhi Leonard and the #6 Aztecs. While the All-American guard cooled in every round after the Sweet 16, he found ways to be a better facilitator for his teammates.

Walker’s adjustments allowed the Huskies to squeak out a 2-point win over #17 Arizona in the Elite 8 and a 1-point win over #11 Kentucky in the national semifinal to advance to the championship against Butler. A double-digit win versus the Bulldogs was largely anti-climactic for most viewers, but the result capped an unlikely run by UConn towards their 3rd championship.

Kemba’s performances for March (Conference and NCAA tournaments):

1. DePaul (Big East 1st round): 26 pts, 7 rebounds, 5 assists and 1 steal
2. Georgetown (Big East 2nd round): 28 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals
3. Pittsburgh (Big East Quarterfinals): 24 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 steals
4. Syracuse (Big East Semifinals): 33 points, 12 rebounds, 5 assists and 6 steals
5. Louisville (Big East Finals): 19 points, 2 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals

Big East tournament averages: 26.0 points, 6.4 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 2.8 steals

6. Bucknell (NCAA 1st round): 18 points, 8 rebounds, 12 assists and 2 steals
7. Cincinnati (NCAA 2nd round): 33 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists and 1 steal
8. San Diego State (Sweet 16): 36 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals
9. Arizona (Elite 8): 20 points, 4 rebounds, 7 assists and 1 steal
10. Kentucky (Final Four): 18 points, 6 rebounds, 7 assists and 2 steals
11. Butler (National Championship): 16 points, 9 rebounds and 1 steal

NCAA tournament averages: 23.5 points, 6.0 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 1.5 steals

Averages for March: 24.6 points, 6.2 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 2.1 steals

Honorable Mention: UConn’s run to an improbable 4th title as a 7th seed:

I consider this title run in 2013-14 to be more of a 5b option to the hiring of Jim Calhoun. However, I feel that the decision of the university to hire the legendary coach did much more for the overall success of the program than this championship. Regardless this title team, led by Shabazz Napier, was the second lowest seed to ever win the NCAA tournament. The Huskies were given the 7th seed during the tournament and toppled traditional powers Villanova, Michigan State, Florida and Kentucky. Napier played a great tournament, averaging 21.2 points, 5.5 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 2.5 steals per game.

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