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Bob Ryan

Calhoun takes seat among elite

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By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / April 5, 2011

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HOUSTON — OK, Jim Calhoun. Don’t you dare lie to us.

On the morning of March 8, the first day of the Big East tournament, here’s what you were probably thinking.

“We’ll get DePaul today, and we have a pretty good shot tomorrow. But by Thursday our legs will be dead, and we can go home to get some rest and start getting ourselves ready for the NCAA Tournament.’’

Not for one millisecond did you seriously envision supervising a net-cutting in Reliant Stadium on April 4. Not with this team.

But this turned out to be the team of every coach’s dream. They had a superstar to lead them. They had a group of talented young kids who actually listened to their hyperactive 68-year-old coach. They got on a roll di tutti rolls, ripping off 11 straight wins, the last of which, last night’s 53-41 triumph over Butler, makes UConn a national champion for the third time in 12 years.

“This group of kids have given me a year that every single coach should get at least one year like this,’’ Calhoun said.

“The championship is incredibly wonderful to bring back to Connecticut and our fans, but to give to these kids, the work they’ve put in, it’s maybe, professionally, the happiest moment of my life.’’

And now it’s time to summon the sculptors. Someone must adjust the figures atop college coaching’s Mount Rushmore. Going into last night only John Wooden (10), Adolph Rupp (4), Mike Krzyzewski (4), and Bob Knight (3) had won more than two national titles. Now they’ll have to squeeze in there somehow the Irish kisser of Jim Calhoun, the kid from Braintree, AIC, Dedham High School, Northeastern, and, for the past 25 years, the Supreme Commander of a basketball empire located in, of all places, Storrs, Conn. Jim Calhoun has become the unquestioned monarch of New England basketball.

First things first, however. A coach can only do so much. When the ball is thrown up it’s the kids who must perform. Calhoun and his staff can take credit for recruiting the young men in question, but the kids have got to go out and play. And when it was time to end some really awful basketball nonsense that probably had television viewers all over America thinking they had wandered into a repeat of the first championship game back in 1939, Calhoun’s kids began to play some real basketball.

And this was a complete horror show for the first 26 minutes. Butler led at the half, 22-19, and that combined total was the lowest halftime score since the 1945 title game between Oklahoma State (23) and North Carolina (17). It might simply have been a case of Stadiumitis (the teams were a combined 15 for 58 at the half, with three assists), but, whatever it was, it was unspeakably ugly.

Believe it or not, Butler came out in the second half and played even worse.

But a lot of that had to do with UConn. Butler had no offense other than heaving up threes, largely because the firm of Smith (Roscoe) and Oriakhi (Alex) had established a No-Fly zone in the paint. These two combined for eight of UConn’s 10 blocks as they made it close to impossible for either 6-foot-11-inch Andrew Smith (2 for 9) or the valiant Matt Howard (1 for 13 in a sad finale to one of the great careers in Butler history) to accomplish anything inside. It may be a while before a team playing for the national championship winds up with nine threes and three twos for an entire game. That 12-for-64 marksmanship (18.8 percent) is a negative record that ought to last a century or two.

Anyway, the Bulldogs were still hanging around in relatively good shape when Ronald Nored made a free throw to keep them right there at 27-26 with 15:54 remaining. Surely, they would start heating up before the night was over, correct?

Ah, no. Butler scored one field goal in the next 9:05.

Now the great Kemba Walker would finish with a game-high 16 and would be awarded the Outstanding Player trophy everyone in the state of Connecticut expected him to win. But when it was time for UConn to take control it was the kids, the Supporting Cast if you will, that stepped forward.

What more can we say about Jeremy Lamb? The entire postseason was a legit Coming Out Party for this soft-spoken 6-5 forward from Norcross, Ga. But in the first half he had been subdued, scoreless with two rebounds.

At 29-26, Lamb picked off a sloppy pass and took it coast-to-coast for a dunk. He followed that with a stop-and-popper in the lane.

It continued to be a demonstration of Connecticut Youth On Parade as freshman Smith blocked a Shawn Vanzant shot, leading to a transition trip to the basket and two free throws by mercurial freshman Shabazz Napier. On the ensuing Butler possession a thoroughly shaken Andrew Smith passed up the chance for a putback and tossed it out to Chase Stigall for a corner three. When that clanged off the rim, UConn took off again and Napier hit Lamb for a lob dunk. There were still more than 11 minutes to play, but it was time to turn off the lights.

For a quarter-century Jim Calhoun has brought basketball entertainment to the people of Connecticut. He scours the land for speedy guards, speedy forwards, and a bruiser or two to patrol the lane. People in the Nutmeg State should remember that it was not that way before he came. UConn and Providence were the Big East bottom feeders. But Jim Calhoun arrived, and he has managed to do a truly amazing thing: he has made Storrs, Conn., a destination. Not that there really is a Storrs — it’s actuality a zip code in greater Mansfield.

He has had some great teams and great players in proliferation. But it’s one thing to win it all when you’re expected to, and quite another to win when you start your conference tournament as a ninth seed and must win five games in five days in order to succeed.

So get this, and get it straight: This has been the greatest month in UConn basketball history. The people of Connecticut had damn well better enjoy it.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.