Reigning champs reeling

Courtesy: Stephen Slade/UConn
Courtesy: Stephen Slade/UConn

Bill Koch, National Columnist

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

No less an authority on inner turmoil and the human condition that William Shakespeare offered this fact of life in his classic Henry IV, and it certainly would seem to apply to the University of Connecticut right now.

The defending national champions are mired in a tailspin that could see them miss even a chance to go back-to-back at this year’s NCAA Tournament. UConn’s latest installment during its second half slide was an 80-59 waxing at Louisville on Monday night, a nationally televised display of just how vulnerable the Huskies have become.

Jim Calhoun isn’t able to personally remedy the situation until he heals himself, a painful battle with spinal stenosis keeping him away from the program that he built into a national powerhouse. Kemba Walker is in the NBA, stripping the Huskies of the go-to player who led them down the stretch last season. A lone junior, Alex Oriakhi, and no seniors are included among UConn’s top nine players in scoring and minutes played. Saturday’s date at the Carrier Dome with Syracuse, the current No. 1 team in the RPI rankings, would seem to suggest that things will get worse before they get better in Storrs.

UConn opened the week at No. 21 in the RPI, a seemingly healthy enough position entering the final full month of the regular season. That ranking flatters to deceive, however, when you consider that the Huskies are now under .500 in Big East play and just 3-7 in their last 10 games after a strong 12-1 start. Two games against the Orange and a matchup with Marquette promise to make the rest of the schedule difficult. UConn’s 9-9 record in conference play last season could prove tough to match this time around considering that the Huskies rank in the bottom half of the league in scoring offense, 3-point field goal percentage, 3-pointers made, assists, turnover margin and assist/turnover ratio. Such is life in the NCAA with young guards like Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright – superb talent alone isn’t enough to win games against good teams.

In hindsight, last year’s 53-41 victory over Butler would have been the perfect opportunity for Calhoun to ride into the sunset. His third national championship put him in the company of John Wooden, Adolph Rupp, Bob Knight and Mike Krzyzewski, the only other men who have captured as many as three titles. Dean Smith didn’t do it. Rick Pitino and John Calipari combined only have one. Calhoun’s longtime Big East rival, Jim Boeheim, counts his 2003 crown as his lone championship. Calhoun stands among the true greats of the game, his legacy on the court secure. He could celebrate his 70th birthday in May relaxing on some tropical island with his bare feet in the sand and without a care in the world.

But those who expected Calhoun to quietly and gracefully fade from the sideline and walk away don’t understand the makeup of the man. He’s a two-time cancer survivor, a gravedigger and granite cutter in a past life, a man who went 1-17 at a Connecticut high school in his first stint as a head coach. He’s a dropout from Lowell State (now UMass-Lowell) who enrolled again at American International almost two years later to pursue his dream of playing and coaching.

Calhoun is as stubborn as the day is long, and that’s something I say with as much admiration as humanly possible. As the grandson of an Irish Catholic in New England who attended mass every day of the week for most of his time on Earth, it’s something that I can appreciate. That hard-headed approach to his career and his life has helped shape Calhoun into the success that he has become. Retiring isn’t in his DNA, whether it’s the Nate Miles fiasco, another health scare or a fourth championship that may give him the reason that he needs to step aside. Calhoun’s head will never rest easy, crown or not, and even a season that seems ready to morph from mediocre to disappointing won’t change that.

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