— TON - No one understands what makes Jim Calhoun tick better than Connecticut associate head coach George Blaney. They share a friendship and a basketball philosophy. They are golf buddies and fierce competitors. And for the past 10 seasons, when Calhoun has missed a game, Blaney has been UConn’s relief ace.
Blaney can be very protective of his friend. At the same time, he can dissect every move his boss makes during the course of a basketball game.
So believe it when Blaney says the Hall of Famer has had a magic touch this season. Letting Kemba Walker be a superhero is the easy part of coaching UConn. Beyond that, Calhoun has had to cope with seven freshmen, five of whom have made significant contributions — at one time or another — to UConn’s remarkable run to the national championship game against Butler Monday night.
That isn’t an easy thing.
“Jim is able to pluck players [off the bench] and put them in a position where they can be successful and he’s done that with this team all year,” Blaney said. “He has such a great pulse on this team that he can pick and choose who is right and at the right time.”
Calhoun put that ability on display Saturday night as the Huskies defeated favored Kentucky 56-55 to advance to the program’s third national championship game since 1999. UConn and Calhoun won it that year and in 2004. Those teams were loaded with future NBA stars and players.
Senior center Charles Okwandu isn’t a future NBA star. But Calhoun played him 16 minutes off the bench against Kentucky and the big man contributed four points (on two dunks), one rebound, one block and two steals.
Freshman Tyler Olander, a starter earlier this season who logged no time against Notre Dame in the regular-season finale, scored the first basket of Saturday’s game with a nice little pivot move in the low post. He only played five minutes, but he did his job.
And guard Shabazz Napier, the freshman whiz who handles the ball when Walker needs to catch his breath, scored UConn’s last four points. Just seconds after dribbling the ball off the foot of Kentucky’s Terrence Jones for a monumental turnover, Napier hit the two most important free throws of his life to give UConn a 56-52 lead with 2 seconds left.
“I was so concerned during the timeout that he’d be so concerned about losing the basketball, dribbling into traffic,” Calhoun said. “He looked at me and said, ‘Coach, I’ll make it up next play.’ What am I going to say? Of course, he makes two foul shots. I thought Shabazz played terrific.”
This has been an amazing thing to watch. From Maui to Houston, the Huskies have grown and developed from a great unknown to a national finalist.
A freshman such as Napier now has confidence in himself because Calhoun has shown so much confidence in him. It isn’t hard to imagine Calhoun gritting his teeth and yanking Napier out of the game after that turnover. Calhoun is notorious for that type of hook, reeling a player to the bench and occasionally crushing a player’s faith.
But this UConn team functions on a different level. Some of the Huskies don’t have a definitive role, but they know they can be called on to produce at any moment.
“He’s trying to find a spark,” Napier said. “At the end of the day, that’s the best thing about it. Everyone is a great teammate and a great player. He put me in the game and I’m not going to go out there and be sluggish. I just go out there and play Shabazz basketball, play great defense and get Kemba and the other guys great shots.”
Napier was 1-for-7 from the floor, including 0-for-4 from three-point land. But Calhoun played him 27 minutes because he was outstanding defending Kentucky’s Brandon Knight (6-for-23, 3-for-11 threes). Knight led Kentucky with 17 points but he did not resemble the player who led the Wildcats to the Final Four.
“Six-for-23 is expensive,” Calhoun said. “We try to use that term defensively. In other words, if you take a lot of tough shots, that’s expensive because your field-goal percentage goes down and we in turn have a much better chance to win.”
Calhoun, like most successful coaches, routinely insists on shrinking his bench as the season moves into February and March. He could use 11 or 12 players in November and December when he is trying to settle on a rotation. But throughout his career, as the games become more important, the numbers fall into single digits.
In the first half Saturday night, he went to his bench early and used nine players by halftime. Walker and Jeremy Lamb led the way with 20 minutes and 18 minutes, respectively, but six players were on the floor 10 or more minutes — including Okwandu, the 7-footer from Nigeria.
Okwandu slammed down his first dunk with 12:28 left in the first half. Less than a minute later he blocked his first shot. He made his presence felt and Calhoun let him ride his time on the floor.
“I felt good in the first half,” Okwandu said. “This is the semifinals and the only way you can get to the finals is to play defense. I don’t worry about scoring. More defense helps.”
But Okwandu, who averaged 2.9 points and 2.7 rebounds in a very limited role this season, energized his teammates with the dunks.
“I’ve told Charles he could be a big threat for us,” Napier said. “He doesn’t understand that. He doesn’t understand how great he could be. He’s one of those guys who just plays and doesn’t understand the cost of not having a passion for the game. I tell him all the time, ‘You’re a 7-footer. If you don’t dunk on anybody and everybody … I wish I was a 7-footer.”
Olander, who grew up just eight miles from UConn’s Gampel Pavilion, worked his way back into Calhoun’s good graces when he had seven points and six rebounds, playing 27 minutes against Syracuse in the semifinals of the Big East tournament.
“Tyler had pretty much played himself out of the lineup,” Blaney said. “But [Calhoun] went to him and Tyler responded. The [2-3] zone says you need to get the ball in the middle. He’s very good with the ball. He knows how to pass. He knows how to throw the ball opposite or throw the ball down and he can shoot the ball.
“We were upset with Tyler that he had played himself out. But that’s what freshmen do. It’s like a yo-yo. Sometimes when they’re down, they can’t get themselves out of it.”
Olander said he has come to terms with starting, coming out of the game, and not knowing if he will go back in again. Calhoun wants him to rebound, play physical against an opponent’s big man (he opened against Kentucky’s Josh Harrelson), and not commit any silly fouls.
Now Olander is back in the starting lineup. He has started all five NCAA games. And even though he is only averaging 9.5 minutes, he is contributing again. He also knows he could come out of the game and not get back in. Any offense is a plus. Just over a minute into the game Saturday, he worked free in the low post and saw Walker smiling at him. Walker delivered the ball, and Olander made his move and scored.
“Coach knows what he’s doing,” Olander said. We’ve made it this far. I’m anxious to help in any way I can and when he calls on me, I’m going to be ready. Coach [Andre] LaFleur and coach [Kevin] Ollie always tell me you’ve got to be ready when your number is called. Opportunity can come to anybody at any moment.”
Calhoun used 10 players against Kentucky and didn’t flinch. Six of them played 16 minutes or more. Eight of them scored. Walker played 40 minutes and Jeremy Lamb logged 38. Both teams played so hard, fatigue became a factor.
Fatigue was the thing that was supposed to derail UConn as they entered the NCAA tourney. They had played five games in five days in the Big East tournament, but never showed signs of being winded until against Kentucky.
“I usually won’t tell you guys I was tired, but I actually was,” Walker said.
Late in the game, Calhoun asked Walker if he needed a 30-second rest.
“He was bent over, so he never responded,” Calhoun said. “So I just kept playing him. We’re going to have to be careful to get him ready for Monday.”
Calhoun has pushed all the right buttons to get the Huskies this far. It would be foolish to doubt him at this point.