Just one year ago, the UConn men’s basketball team was celebrating a national championship, the ultimate culmination for a team that underwent a huge transformation at the end of the regular season, going from mediocre to interesting to, “wow, is Kemba Walker really good enough to singlehandedly lead this team to a national championship?” The Huskies answered that question with an emphatic yes, but the celebratory days of Kemba-madness appear long-gone now.
The NCAA informed the Huskies Thursday night that it had turned down their latest appeal to be eligible for the 2013 postseason. UConn was ruled ineligible because of several years of sub-standard Academic Progress Rate scores. Its waiver request was based upon the claim that its academic scores have improved over the last two seasons. Although its appeal was denied, the school will still try to become eligible by forcing a rule change whereby the recently improved test scores would be accepted. Such efforts are unlikely to be successful.
It appears as if the Huskies have hit rock bottom. Postseason basketball in 2013 is a near-definite no, freshman Andre Drummond and sophomore Jeremy Lamb–the Huskies’ two most talented players–appear to be headed for the NBA draft, senior forward Alex Oriakhi has decided to transfer, and legendary coach Jim Calhoun looks to be on the verge of retirement.
What a difference a year can make. This is the same Huskies squad that ranked fourth in both major polls in this year’s preseason rankings, a team that many pundits predicted could repeat as National champions. Those predictions didn’t seem outrageous before the season began: the majority of UConn’s championship roster remained intact and it was bringing in two of the nation’s top recruits in point guard Ryan Boatwright and Drummond. With Lamb, a new crop of talented freshmen, and Calhoun at the helm, nothing short of a top-three seed in the Tournament was expected.
UConn fell short of those expectations, way short.
But it didn’t seem as if they would early on. The Huskies wasted no time trying to validate those hefty preseason predictions, going 12-1 while playing one of the nation’s toughest nonconference schedules. But the Big East exposed UConn for the paper champion it truly was, a talented, but incoherent group that lacked the Kemba-like leader needed to channel that talent into success. Sure, Lamb and Drummond were future lottery picks and Boatwright was one of the best freshman in the country. But the Huskies’ NBA-studded roster assumed that they could win on talent alone. When they were challenged in games, when the going got tough, UConn folded under the pressure, lacking the fiery personality who could pull them together and help gut-out those always-tough Big East conference victories.
Even more troubling was the fact that Calhoun–the man who built UConn men’s basketball into the national power that it is today–missed most of the season due to health issues. Lacking a floor leader was bad in itself, but without Calhoun, the Huskies were rudderless, lost amongst a sea of less talented, but more-driven Big East teams.
The Huskies limped into the Tournament, and–despite an inspiring run into the quarterfinals of the Big East Tournament where glimpses of last year’s improbably late-season run were on display–predictably dropped their first game, falling hopelessly to a less-talented but more team-oriented Iowa State squad. It was a fitting end to the Huskies’ season, a perfect example of an aren’t-they-supposed-to-be-better-than-this? UConn performance
The early tournament exit was expected, and so the Huskies hoped that their wish for 2013 postseason basketball would be granted. The NCAA squashed those hopes Thursday night, leaving the Huskies in danger of regressing into the pre-Calhoun days, when Storrs, Connecticut, was a nonentity on the major college basketball landscape.
If he retains his position as head coach, it won’t be long before UConn is in contention for its fourth National Championship. But if Calhoun retires–a very possible outcome, considering his health problems and the lack of a 2013 postseason–the Huskies’ free fall could continue.
Chris Johnson is a sports writer for The Daily Northwestern. He is also the Michigan beat writer for bigtenorbust.com and a writer for PurpleWildcats.com (Northwestern Scout/FoxSports). Follow him @chrisdjohnsonn. contact: firstname.lastname@example.org