They are New England's other dynasty.
The UConn men's basketball team* won its fourth NCAA championship in 15 years Monday night in Jerry Jones' Giant Playhouse located somewhere between Dallas and Fort Worth. UConn, a No. 7 seed that needed overtime to beat St. Joe's in the Round of 64, never trailed in its 60-54 victory over No. 8 Kentucky.
While they play in Storrs, Conn., the foundation of these "hungry Huskies" was built by a coach who grew up in Braintree, began his college coaching career at Northeastern and then brought UConn out of the Dark Ages and into the 20th and then 21st Century of college basketball. Jim Calhoun's collegiate coaching pedigree runs from Boston, down the Mass Pike and I-84 to Storrs, with a side trip across Connecticut and up I-91 to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield.
On the court, these Top Dogs were led by a feisty and dare we say, scrappy, point guard from Roxbury, Shabazz Napier. He will tell you Roxbury over Boston every time. Napier, all of 6-1, 180 pounds, played two years at Charlestown High before moving on to Lawrence Academy in Groton. He was a freshman on UConn's team that won the NCAA title in 2011. He was the Most Outstanding Player of the 2014 tournament after scoring 22 points Monday.
Bookend national championships.
Calhoun noted on Monday's "Dennis and Callahan" show, that it took a trip to a prep tournament in Orlando for the then-UConn coach to notice the talented but undeveloped shooter.
"He was not a great point guard but he could score. I saw him play in Orlando at the end of his junior year and loved the way he played and loved his swagger . . . We were fortunate to get kids who played in New England," Calhoun said.
But Calhoun's, and now Kevin Ollie's territory, stretches far beyond New England. UConn's starting lineup in Monday night's title game came from Milwaukee, Aurora, Ill., Roxbury, Los Angeles and Berlin - that's Germany, not New Hampshire.
Kentucky coach and Freshman Babysitter John Calipari once coached at UMass, but cleaned the Minutemen out of his shoes like he would Memphis and the New Jersey Nets on his way to Lexington [Ky.]. Sorry, but where Calipari may be headed next, that fan with the "UK 2014 National Championship" tattoo, Drake in his UK jump suit or even Derek The RA's note that was blown to smithereens and ridculously out of proportion online, mean little here.
Calhoun deliciously summed up Calipari on WEEI Monday. "The one thing about John, John can become, you know, a bullshi--er . . . I actually have a better relationship with John than I used to many years ago . . . He’s actually a pretty good guy to be around. I don’t do business the way he does. But he’s done a good job coaching. His way, one-and-done, most institutions are not going to allow you to do what Kentucky does . . . That’s a lot of kids to leave early. But he can coach. He gets his teams to play. He’s done a good job certainly getting talent."
But sometimes, youth isn't served. Fundamentals 1, Freshman 0. Kentucky missed 11 free throws [13 of 24] while UConn went 10-for-10 from the line. That's game right there. Calipari won't have to worry about any "Sophomore Jinx" next season. "One-And-Done" never sounded so good.
This championship is thankfully all about UConn, once dubbed the "only passion in this passionless state." UConn basketball - men and women - is the lone sports unifier in Connecticut. That state is very familiar turf. My career included stops at the Waterbury Republican and Connecticut Post in Bridgeport during UConn's heyday in the 1990s. OBF Jr., is a native Nutmegger. The state boasts Bruins and Rangers fans; Knicks and Celtics fans; Red Sox and Yankees fans [I knew one Mets fan] and Patriots and Giants fans, among others. Former Gov. John Rowland, who went from the state house to federal prison to a just-concluded radio career in Hartford, once told the Boston Globe that the fault line for Red Sox and Yankees fans ran down Farmington Avenue in Waterbury.
Robert Kraft reached a handshake deal with Rowland to move the Patriots to a new stadium in East Hartford along the Connecticut River back in 1998. The move, surprise, never happened. Imagine all those Duck Boat parades up Main Street to Talcott Street then back down Columbus Boulevard before splashing into the river and drifting to Middletown.
Why shouldn't Boston fans embrace this team? Plenty of fans in Connecticut have been doing the same in reverse for years, often in the hostile territory south and west of the Brass City. There's always room on the Huskies bandwagon for disaffected Northeastern Huskies fans, tormented Terriers and flightless Eagles. Connecticut is the ultimate bandwagon state for pro teams, with soft allegiances shifting between Boston and New York. Anyone can be a UConn fan, especially when it comes to time to fatten up those New England championship numbers. [College hockey and all those titles up and down Commonwealth Avenue are another subject for another day.]
What's not to love about UConn, starting with the fact they beat Kentucky?
"You're looking at the hungry Huskies. This is what happened when you banned us," Napier said in triumph after taking the stage from CBS' Jim "Please Watch The Masters Without Tiger" Nantz.
The Huskies have sent 32 players to the NBA. Napier will be the 33rd. He got some big-time love on Twitter Monday night before his win. Perhaps he'll team up with LeBron James some day as members of the Fenway Sports Group team. There's little chance Napier will still be around when the Heat finally get their chance in the 2014 NBA Draft.
No way u take another PG in the lottery before Napier.— LeBron James (@KingJames) April 8, 2014
LeBron demonstrated his man-crush on Ollie, too.
"Somebody told me we were Cinderellas, and I was like: 'No, we UConn,'" Ollie said. "This is what we do. We are born for this. We're [bred] to cut down nets. We're not chasing championships. Championships are chasing us."
Connecticut spiced New England's "Decade of Dominance" with a pair of men's NCAA championships [2004 and '11] before Monday.
"Coach Calhoun paved the way and we just walked through it," added Ollie, who is 6-0 in the NCAA Tournament as a head coach. Not quite Terry Francona 8-0 in the World Series stuff, but a spectacular NCAA Tournament debut for the second-year coach.
Ollie's next move could be to the NBA and the millions upon millions it has to offer. And he moves on, you can just guess who might take his place?
There was plenty of cash on the table and elsewhere these past three weeks. There was a billion dollars on the line for anyone this year who could produce a perfect NCAA bracket. Millions more were legally wagered on the NCAA Tournament on-line and in Las Vegas. The current 14-year TV deal to broadcast the tourney on CBS and Turner generated a whopping $10.8 billion for the NCAA and its member schools. Official and unofficial sponsors latched on to everything associated with "March Madness" or the "national college basketball championship tournament."
March Madness is now March Madne$$. Somewhere, Scott Boras wants to blow the whole thing up and sign all those freshman who are about to leave Kentucky.
Calipari is making $5.4 million a year to coach Kentucky.
Calhoun left UConn in 2012 after 40 seasons as a college coach, three NCAA championships, some serious health concerns [which have thankfully improved], earning a spot in the Basketball Hall of Fame and at the onset of NCAA recruiting violations that kept the Huskies out of last year's post-season.
Calhoun almost as much sitting out last season as he would have done coaching the Huskies on the Road To Nowhere. He was paid $2,742,307 not to coach the Huskies in 2012-13. He would have made $3 million had he coached the team. Calhoun's decision to quit on the eve of last season left the Huskies with no other realistic choice than to elevate Ollie into the head coach's role.
Calhoun took another $1 million payment lump sum in March 2013 to retire as assistant AD, in lieu of $300,000 per year for the next five years. His official title is now "Coach Emeritus."
No wonder he's always around this team.
Napier, who recently said he goes to bed "starving" because student-athletes aren't paid, said he supports the recent NLRB decision to allow Northwestern football players to unionize. It doesn't apply to state-run schools like UConn, however. "I don't feel student-athletes should get hundreds of thousands of dollars, but like I said, there are hungry nights that I go to bed and I'm starving," he said. "There's hungry nights and I'm not able to eat and I still got to play up to my capabilities . . . When you see your jersey getting sold - it may not have your last name on it - but when you see your jersey getting sold and things like that, you feel like you want something in return."
Napier's about to get the mother of all Snickers bars for his hunger pains. As a mid-to-late first-round pick, perhaps by your Boston Celtics, he'll be guaranteed a two-year deal worth about $2.5 million, with an option year for around $1.2 million. There will be NBA jerseys sold with his actual name on the back. He'll get a piece of that action, too, along with the rest of the league.
Thankfully, UConn wasn't graded on its graduation-rate curve in this Final Four. Those Huskies who don't make the NBA cut, or find a pro home in Europe, will have to settle for another national championship, unconditional love and adoration across the "Land of Steady Habits" and a permanent place on the walls inside New England's Mecca of College Basketball.
Not a bad deal.
* - [Internet/Twitter disclaimer: The UConn women added six more NCAA crowns since Varitek split the uprights in New Orleans. Those 39-0 Huskies play 37-0 Notre Dame for their ninth overall championship Tuesday night in Nashville. They are worthy of their own place and column elsewhere.]
The OBF Blog is written by award-winning journalist and Bay State native Bill Speros. Got a news tip, want to let him know directly what you think, have a complaint or compliment about his "aggressively relevant" content or hate people who speak about themselves in the third person, hit him up on his Obnoxious Boston Fan Facebook page, on Twitter @realOBF or hit him on at his
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