Jim Calhoun’s Huskies go meekly into the night
With less than two minutes left and his defending national champion Huskies all but eliminated from the NCAA tournament by Iowa State, Calhoun spent a timeout barraging official Mike Reed with criticism. After watching his team fail to fight for the first dozen minutes of the game, the coach was spoiling for one at the end.
Calhoun kept pushing, but Reed wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. The ref walked away, and the game played out. The Cyclones won 77-64, and a snippet of Dylan Thomas poetry floated through my head.
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Calhoun did not go gently Thursday night. He’s never done anything gently in his accomplished but acrimonious tenure at UConn. Building a program out of nothing and taking it to three national titles was always a street fight for Calhoun – and he’s been a good street fighter. He’s more comfortable in brass knuckles than white gloves.
So he raged, raged against the dying of this season – tearing apart his passive big men during the first half against Iowa State, then launching on the officials late in the second half. He may well have been raging against the dying of his career, too. We’ll have to see how it plays out.
I asked after the game what process he would go through to decide his future. Calhoun didn’t much care for the question.
“We’re talking about tonight’s game,” he said. “We’re not talking about me. I think we’re talking about [the game]. I’m going to get on the plane tomorrow, go home and do what I usually do, and meet up with the team on Monday. So far as my own personal thing, I don’t think it has any relevance here, to be honest with you.”
Relevance is in the eye of the beholder. Inquiring minds want to know the answer to this question: Does a 69-year-old who missed eight games this season with back problems want to ride out a likely postseason ban for academic shortcomings in 2012-13 and try again in 2013-14?
Maybe Calhoun does. And maybe UConn will win its second appeal of its NCAA ban for a low Academic Progress Rate. But the first one certainly was batted back in no uncertain terms.
Whether there is a 2013 NCAA berth or not, there’s reason to wonder what the future holds for one of the game’s towering figures.
Nobody is going to tell Calhoun what to do, and he certainly isn’t inclined to acquiesce to conventional wisdom. If he did, he would have retired last season after winning the title with what might have been the most breathtaking run to end a season in college basketball history.
But even without Kemba Walker, this was expected to be a good season for UConn – especially when the Huskies landed coveted big man Andre Drummond after he had reclassified from a high school junior to a senior. UConn began the year ranked in the top five and remained in the top 10 into January; then everything fell apart.
The Huskies staggered through an 8-10 Big East season and weren’t assured of an NCAA berth until winning two games in the league tournament. They weren’t a good team.
Somehow, everyone managed to forget that when the brackets came out Sunday and a potential UConn-Kentucky game was set up in the round of 32. It was a potential rematch of a Final Four game a year ago, and another battle between Calhoun and longtime adversary John Calipari.
Delicious storyline. But Iowa State trashed it, with plenty of assistance from UConn.
The Huskies themselves went quite gently into the offseason. For the first 12 minutes, they raged against nothing. They were little more than passive bystanders to a true Cyclone of a start by Iowa State.
“For whatever reason, we got caught being nothing more than a stop sign as they went by us a thousand miles an hour,” Calhoun said.
Almost before anyone knew it, the score was 36-14. UConn looked similar to its most recent visit to the Yum! Center, when the Huskies were blown out last month by Louisville.
That game was coached by George Blaney, who lacks Calhoun’s ability to browbeat players into higher effort levels. This time, it happened on the bully’s watch.
“It’s a disappointing ending,” Calhoun said. “There were some things that made me feel good about this team. I like coaching basketball. I hated the ending today because I didn’t think we were typical to the way we played the last couple of weeks.”
It was, though, typical of the way UConn played more often than not this season. Ultimately, I think that dissatisfaction will goad the stubborn, prideful Calhoun into sticking around.
[Predictions: See Yahoo! Sports experts’ Final Four picks]
Go out like this? With no guts and no glory? With nothing left to do in the final minutes of a round-of-64 NCAA game but try to badger a ref into giving you a “T”?
In the early hours of Friday morning, as Calhoun undoubtedly stewed in his Louisville hotel, I’m sure he could not envision going gently after a night like this.
Given some time to take stock, to see what the NCAA says about the appeal and what his doctors say the future holds for his balky back, maybe that will change. But if the flesh is willing, the reservoir of requisite rage against the dying of the light still seems to be full.
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