UConn’s rock: Jeff Adrien
DETROIT – Moments after the biggest victory of his career, Jeff Adrien didn’t bother to wipe the blood that trickled from his chin.
Leaning ahead in a chair near his locker, elbows on his knees, Connecticut’s standout forward was too focused on the 16 text messages he’d received in the minutes following the Huskies’ victory over Missouri on Saturday – the win that catapulted UConn into the Final Four.
“Buddies from back home, relatives, guys I’ve played against … ” Adrien said. “I’m hearing from everyone, man. Everyone.”
Adrien snapped his phone shut, dabbed the gash on his chin and smiled.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” he said. “I’ve come a long way.”
So, too, has UConn. And for that, the Huskies can thank their senior leader – or, as coach Jim Calhoun calls him, their “rock.”
He might not be a future NBA lottery pick like center Hasheem Thabeet or a flashy guard such as A.J. Price or Kemba Walker. Still, as much as any Husky, Adrien was vital in getting UConn to the Final Four for the first time since 2004.
His 13.7 points and 10 rebounds rank second on the team, but Adrien’s most valuable contribution has been his leadership.
“Everyone on the team looks up to him because of how hard he works,” Price said. “He’s so competitive and so passionate about winning. He didn’t want his career to end without leaving his mark. He didn’t want it to end without going to the Final Four.”
It nearly did.
UConn felt it had the best team in the country when Adrien was a freshman in 2005-06. With Adrien playing a key role off the bench, UConn went 30-4 and lost just twice during the regular season before being upset by George Mason in the Elite Eight round of the NCAA tournament.
Five players from that team were drafted. With Adrien as the only experienced returnee the following season, UConn went just 17-14 and failed to make the NCAAs.
The following year, when Adrien was a junior, the Huskies were upset in the first round by San Diego. That’s why it was no surprise when Calhoun pulled Adrien aside before the Missouri game last week to make sure his senior was focused.
“Jeff,” said Calhoun, recalling the conversation, “I call you the rock for a reason. We are 40 minutes away from Detroit (and the Final Four) and you’re going to be the guy that gets us there.
“You were the one on the team that should have (gotten) there and didn’t. Now you can lead us to that place.”
A few hours later, the Huskies had advanced to college basketball’s final weekend thanks to a banner performance from Adrien that included 12 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and three blocks.
A 6-foot-7, 243-pound senior, Adrien touts 47 career double-doubles along with 1,590 career points and 1,119 career rebounds, making him only the fifth player in school history to pass the 1,000 mark in both categories.
Well-rounded as he may be statistically, Adrien is also UConn’s tone-setter. The Huskies, (31-4) have developed a reputation as one of the most physical, intimidating teams in the country. They beat you by beating you up.
The well-chiseled Adrien thrives in that role.
He bench presses 315 pounds and often shouts or pounds his chest after a block or an offensive rebound. Earlier this season, Adrien began laughing at Samardo Samuels when the Louisville freshman tried to muscle up with him and back him into the paint.
“I’ve been in this league for four years now, lifting weights and getting strong,” Adrien said after the game. “That freshman should’ve known better than to try to back me down. That’s a no-no.”
Adrien, a Brookline, Mass. native who picked UConn over Kansas four years ago, also has a soft outside touch that makes him a threat to hit from mid-range. The Huskies are hoping it makes a difference in Saturday’s national semifinal against Michigan State.
A victory in that game would give UConn a spot in Monday’s national championship against either North Carolina or Villanova. The Huskies have won two national titles, with their last coming in 2004.
“No matter what happens,” Adrien said, “I feel good about helping this program become elite again. I feel good about getting us back to the top.”