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Bob Ryan

A Sweet touch at UConn

Calhoun savoring Huskies’ success

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / March 24, 2011

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — Connecticut is in the Sweet 16. Ho and hum.

This visit to the Honda Center for the West Regional is Jim Calhoun’s 10th Round of 16, which means the Huskies are amazingly close to doing it on an every-other-year basis since the big breakthrough into national prominence in 1990. The Huskies have advanced to the Elite Eight six times and the Final Four three times, winning it all in 1999 and 2004. All of this was enough to get the man from Braintree into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

At this level of achievement in college basketball, coaching is a bare-knuckle sport. That’s why it’s almost a mismatch when the topic is Jim Calhoun vs. Generic Coach.

Jim Calhoun is not a certified lunatic (they do exist in his business), but he’s not wired like you or me, either. Feisty, determined, competitive . . . he’s all those things. You’d better throw in “smart,’’ too. His own choice of descriptions is “stubborn.’’

Whatever the words, they have all blended together to produce 851 career wins at Northeastern and Connecticut. He is now 68, and he isn’t going anywhere, except to the one place in this world he is happiest: the gym.

And he has seldom been happier with a group of kids than he is with this one. Jim Calhoun loves, loves, looooves this team.

“It’s my 39th year as a head coach,’’ he said, “and, quite honestly, this is one of the happiest years I’ve ever had. This team has made basketball so much fun.

“This is the most resilient team of any team I’ve ever coached. I was upset with them early. I told my assistants I thought they went into the gym after a loss and were too happy. But it wasn’t that they were too happy. They were just looking forward to getting better.’’

That happiness doesn’t necessarily extend to his personal life. During the course of the season, he lost both his sister-in-law and his college roommate (“we were very close’’). And then there’s what he referred to as “other factors,’’ meaning his problems with the NCAA concerning recruiting violations. He will be forced to sit out three games next season, and let’s just say he probably wishes he had never heard of Nate Miles.

The NCAA stuff is embarrassing, and it casts him in a bad light, not that he’s anything other than a mainstream envelope-pusher. He got greedy; that’s all. He already had a good team, and he didn’t need Miles.

He will worry about next year next year. Right now, his Huskies are on a spectacular roll. They entered the Big East tournament as a ninth seed and became champions by winning five games in five days — a feat most observers had deemed impossible — then followed with NCAA Tournament wins over Bucknell and Cincinnati.

The outside world undoubtedly regards this team as the Kemba Walker All-Stars, and there is a lot of truth to that. The 6-foot, Bronx-bred junior guard has injected himself into the national Player of the Year argument by averaging nearly 24 points to go with just under 5 assists and — who knew? — a shade under 6 rebounds a game.

He is also college basketball’s most celebrated clutch shooter, precisely the kind of Central Casting star the experts say a team must have if it wishes to win an NCAA championship.

According to Calhoun, it doesn’t end with the stats.

“At 6 feet, 185 pounds, there isn’t anything he can’t do,’’ Calhoun maintained, “and the greatest thing he can do is lead a team and impose some of his will on his teammates. Most people can’t transmit that. That’s a hard thing to do, and I’ve had some great players, and some can.’’

“We feed off him,’’ agreed Lowell’s Alex Oriakhi, a 6-9 sophomore who provides UConn with an inside presence. “When he plays great out there, the whole teams plays great out there.’’

But a 6-foot guard, no matter how dynamic, can carry a college team only so far. The big change in UConn over the past seven games has been the elevation in play of a bunch of freshmen and sophomores. Once you get beyond Walker, UConn is a very young team.

Oriakhi is one of them. He can be a rebounding machine; witness such outputs as 21, 19, and 18 this season. But lately he has been pleasantly consistent on the glass when UConn needs it most.

Another key freshman contributor has been 6-7 Jeremy Lamb. Ready for one of those you-can’t-make-this stuff-up tales?

In an opening-round game of the 1984 NCAA Tournament, Calhoun’s Northeastern team was matched up against Virginia Commonwealth. The Huskies shot 74 percent as a team from the floor, with freshman sensation Reggie Lewis going 15 for 17. But a VCU forward named Rolando Lamb sank a falling-down 15-footer at the buzzer to send Northeastern home. Yup, it was Jeremy’s dad.

The son is a very intriguing player. Not many 6-7 kids have a 74-inch wing span.

Walker is the leader, and he says we should all drop the youth bit.

“Everybody is saying it’s a young team,’’ he said, “but, you know, at this point, we don’t have any freshmen; we’re all basketball players.’’

They’re UConn basketball players. They’re Jim Calhoun basketball players. They’re in the Sweet 16. You might say the first two things make the third a given.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.