UConn men's basketball: Huskies using time to regroup

Matt Stout

Mingling with fans and the like Tuesday at a book signing inside the Hartford Civic Center’s newly named Comcast Coliseum Club luxury box, Jim Calhoun was struck by a certain comment, mostly because he’s in total agreement with it.

“‘This team doesn’t play like your teams,’” the UConn men’s basketball coach was told. “And they’re right. ... I want us to look like a Connecticut team. Win, lose or draw — and hopefully we’ll have a win — we’ll look like a Connecticut team.”

So far, these Huskies haven’t. Even at 6-2 with close losses to the only two ranked teams they’ve faced, they haven’t played the way Calhoun is accustomed to nor how people have expected them to.

The offense is clicking when the defense isn’t. The defense is there, seemingly only when the offense struggles. Some players aren’t using their strengths, while others are trying sometimes trying too hard, playing only to their weaknesses.

As Calhoun has tried to mold this group over the last season-and-a-half, it’s often been a frustrating venture, which perhaps was none more apparent than last Thursday in their 69-60 win over Northeastern.

That much is certain. So is Calhoun when he says he believes that can change.

“I don’t think it’s rocket science, I don’t think it’s something they can’t do,” said Calhoun, on hand Tuesday to promote his recently released book, ‘A Passion to Lead’. “But I do think we have to focus in.”

In a way, that started this week. With 10 days between games — UConn hosts Quinnipiac Sunday at the Hartford Civic Center — Calhoun said he and his players recently had “our big meeting,” where the discussion was about their relationship and how he would meet them halfway.

“But they’ve gotta come across the aisle a little bit,” he said. “I said, ‘Look, most  of you who were here last year, (and) no question, I’m pushing you much harder than I pushed you last year because I expect more. Do you want to expect less of you?’ That really was my mindset. ‘Do you want to expect less of you?’”

Simply put, that answer is, ‘No.’ But as Calhoun pointed out, his job is to maximize his players’ potential, and he doesn’t feel like he’s done that — yet.

But it’s not from a lack of trying. Last year, he tried the “soft” approach, knowing he had a young team. This year, he’s tried the “hard” one, perhaps best exemplified by last Thursday when he continually got on his players to the point his outbursts essentially earned him an ejection. In the past, he’s taken his players to the movies, or he’s tried banning food on the plane to a game.

“I was speaking to Jeff Adrien,” Calhoun said. “I said, ‘Jeff, I’ve always liked you, you were a terrific freshman for us. And actually, when your career’s over, you’re going to have good numbers. But you can have winning numbers when you accentuate the things that you do so well and they are really good, and not worry about the things and try to highlight the things you don’t do well.

“That may be our team to some degree,” he continued. “I’m speaking to Jeff, who I really like, but I'm trying to make a point to the rest of the team that we need to come together as a group and get this done.”

Recently, Calhoun broke out a photo of Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell going after each other in a game to the point where they needed to be separated. On one side in the photo’s background is Red Auerbach.

And  on the left?

“George Blaney,” Calhoun said. “So I show it to the kids and I say, ‘Some of you guys don’t listen to Coach Blaney. I wonder if I’ll see you with the two greatest centers of all time.’

“My point was simply, you name it, over the years, there’s many things I probably haven’t tried to do.”

That includes turning around a struggling team.

“This has been a difficult time for us. It’s been a difficult year-and-a-half for us, but I still believe in them,” Calhoun said.

“I don’t like the line, ‘Well if Caron Butler, Ray Allen and Doron Sheffer walked through the door ...’ Yeah we would win a national championship. You can say that to a lot of teams, too. Emeka (Okafor) is not going to be starting at center on Sunday. That’s not my thing. This is the team we have, and they’re good enough to win games.”

Reach Matt Stout at 425-4250 or mstout@norwichbulletin.com