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Huskies used last year as motivation

SAN ANTONIO -- Connecticut had a plan to win the 2004 national title.

And it began in this building, here in the Alamodome, on March 28, 2003 when the Huskies lost to Texas in the Sweet 16.

"I told them we'll be back," Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said. "I told them that they're going to be good enough. I said we'd get them some help. I said to stick with us and work hard and great things would happen."

His players didn't ignore the message.

"Coach told us that the Final Four is here next year, so let's come back and win it," said Emeka Okafor, Connecticut junior center and the Final Four most outstanding player.

"I didn't pick up on what he was saying but he knew what he was doing," Connecticut junior guard Ben Gordon said. "Once we realized what he was saying, we made a pact that we would be back."

To avoid a derailment from the title plan, Okafor and Gordon returned for their junior seasons. Charlie Villanueva chose the Huskies over the NBA and Josh Boone blossomed into the perfect compliment to Okafor inside. That answered Calhoun's call to get bigger to win the title.

Okafor said the Connecticut weight training staff put up a count of how many exercise days were left until the Final Four. There were plenty of late nights and a ton of long hours in the gym.

"It's amazing that we're here after everything we did and talked about since September," Calhoun said.

Connecticut will be remembered for Monday night's convincing title win, the Huskies nine-game run through the Big East and NCAA Tournaments and for the big-time play of Okafor and Gordon.

Nothing else.

No one will sit back and try to pick apart the Huskies' six losses during the regular season. Few should even try to dissect what Okafor's back injury meant to this team, or Villanueva's seven-game absence at the beginning of the season due to an NCAA investigation.

Okafor said he always believed he would be healthy enough for the NCAA Tournament. And obviously this team was built for a title run on the backs of two stars that decided to stay in school for their third season in college rather than choose the lure of the NBA.

And they delivered a national title.

That's the way it's supposed to go down.

The run to the title is a journey, a marathon, and there are plenty of potholes for every team that tries to make this kind of championship run.

But the message is clear.

If stars stay in school for the season after they break through on the national stage, then winning a title is possible.

Look at Jameer Nelson at Saint Joseph's. He could have bolted for the NBA and been a borderline first-round pick. He stayed and the Hawks had a magical season, winning 27 straight games and earning a No. 1 seed before losing to Oklahoma State in the Elite Eight in the East Rutherford region.

Wayne Simien must be paying attention. He could have bolted for the NBA after this season, but announced that he would return for his senior season at Kansas. That move could mean the Jayhawks end up in St. Louis in the Final Four and ultimately as national champs. ESPN.com tabbed the Jayhawks as the early, early, early 2004-05 preseason favorites based on Simien's decision to return.

It's hard to judge players who are locks for the lottery. Returning to school when the guarantee of millions is within reach is probably asking too much. But Okafor and Gordon sacrificed the possibility of at least hundreds of thousand of dollars by coming back and being a part of a title run.

Connecticut's plan was managed well throughout the season. It started with Okafor's and Gordon's decision to return. The addition of Villanueva last spring certainly helped their depth. But Calhoun got this team to buy into the team concept, just like Paul Hewitt did with a starless Georgia Tech.

Kansas could be following a similar model. Bill Self will have to manage egos, but the hunger that the Huskies felt after losing in the Sweet 16 to Texas here in San Antonio fueled Calhoun and the returning players for a trip back to the Riverwalk. Self has similar motivation after the Jayhawks lost to Georgia Tech in St. Louis at the same site of next year's Final Four.

Calhoun kept a picture on his desk of the Huskies on a river boat on the San Antonio River from March 2003, as a reminder this season.

Brown said he walked by that photo every time he went into Calhoun's office and took note of the location. The Huskies took another candid shot this week in San Antonio that will likely hold a special place in Calhoun's office.

Self would have been wise to say the same thing in the locker room at the Edward Jones Dome or take a photo.

We're not sure if he took a picture of the team hanging around the Arch, but it certainly could be added motivation for the Jayhawks. Like Connecticut, they've got the core back with Simien, Keith Langford, Aaron Miles, a rising pair of studs in J.R. Giddens and David Padgett and a star-studded group of freshmen coming in Russell Robinson and Alexander Kahn, with the possibility of one or two more. Simien even has a nagging shoulder problem that is akin to Okafor's back injury issues. If Simien stays healthy, just like Okafor had to this season, then he could win the player of the year award as well as lead the Jayhawks to the title.

The plan of instilling hunger, bringing back at least one or two stars, including a player of the year candidate, and a coach that has that incredible drive to win a title (Self has three Elite Eight appearances and no Final Fours) can work.

It did for Connecticut.

They had it down all season, even if it didn't appear the plan to win a title was working every game.

It worked when it mattered most for six games in the NCAA Tournament.

Monday night when Calhoun left the Alamodome, he fulfilled his prophecy. Now, he's only the third active coach with multiple titles. Ironically, it came on the same day he was left out of the Basketball Hall of Fame's Class of 2004.

And it came a little more than a year after Calhoun had prostate cancer and the subsequent surgery to remove his prostate.

When Calhoun first got word that he had cancer, thoughts of another national title weren't in his head.

"But during the process I found out what a lucky guy I was," Calhoun said. "It hasn't changed my priorities that were always family [and] God first and then my job.

"But I've always enjoyed my team and I enjoyed this team even more. I realized how lucky I am, how lucky I am to be coaching these kids. What I went through makes me appreciate the titles even more."

The plan begins this week toward a run at a third at Connecticut. If teams like Kansas were smart, they would start on their own guide to a title today, too.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.