- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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Jim Calhoun’s October was dominated by two humbling experiences.
He had to spend the first day of practice in front of the NCAA’s committee on infractions committee defending his Connecticut program and his accountability of an atmosphere of compliance.
And then, just a few days later, he found himself in New York answering questions about his Huskies being picked as the 10th-best team in the Big East during conference media days. At the time, UConn was the trendy pick to lose in the first round of the Maui Invitational to Wichita State. And no one would’ve considered it much of an upset.
Instead, the Huskies, on the back of Kemba Walker, beat Wichita State, Michigan State and Kentucky and brought a trophy home from Hawaii. Throughout the month of December, Connecticut didn’t let down its guard with any “bad” losses. There was a one-week stretch in which the Huskies lost at Notre Dame and at Pitt and struggled at home versus South Florida, but that was immediately followed up with a thrilling OT victory on the road against a Texas team that is now arguably the hottest in the country. A nonconference win over Tennessee came shortly thereafter.
So as of now, a UConn team with absolutely zero expectations is 17-3, ranked seventh nationally in the coaches poll and sixth in the RPI. The Huskies seemed to be destined for a 2- or 3-seed in the NCAA tournament. Not too shabby for the so-called 10th-best team in the Big East.
The 68-year-old Calhoun is member of the Basketball Hall of Fame and a two-time national champion. But it’s been years since he had to deal with such low expectations in Storrs. He had health issues last season yet still signed a four-year contract extension after his contract expired. He made some smart, tactical coaching moves by adding former extremely popular Huskies player Kevin Ollie, as well as former head coach Glenn Miller, to his bench.
He’s also made sure the Huskies don’t simply rely on the great Walker to win every game. The much-maligned freshmen class has matured under Calhoun’s watch with Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier complementing UConn’s All-American well. Also, Charles Okwandu is at last a contributing member of the team in his final season.
Simply put, it’s been one of the finest coaching jobs in Calhoun’s storied career.
The Huskies have gone from an NIT team that returned the absolute fewest minutes of any Big East squad to legit Final Four contender. From unranked and out-of-sight to top-10 ranking and legit Final Four contender.
Sounds like a national coach of the year finalist to me.