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Column: Who could have seen this coming

By Matt McDonough
On March 29, 2011

This is storybook.

This is like that surprise birthday present. The perfect holiday gift that was hidden under another under the Christmas tree.

Nine wins in 19 days. All elimination games. Are you kidding me?

The UConn men's basketball team was supposed to be fatigued. Five wins in five days in New York was going to make them tired. They were going to be gassed for the NCAA tournament.

How did that argument seem to make any sense to begin with?

These are 18 to 20 year-old kids. They don't get tired. They don't think about repercussions from a grueling schedule. They play basketball. Besides, it's only 40 minutes. How could the Huskies possibly succumb to fatigue when they had this opportunity right in front of them?

In the locker room after UConn's 65-63 Elite Eight win over Arizona, there wasn't much of a raucous celebration. There was a look of bewilderment, almost shock, that they actually did it.

Tyler Olander said he didnt think this group would make the Final Four so fast, especially after coach Jim Calhoun showed the team predictions that didn't have the Huskies in the 68-team field. Niels Giffey was lost for words on his feelings. Roscoe Smith, still sporting a swollen and bloodshot right eye, said through what appeared to be exhaustion that it's a big accomplishment, considering "experts" didn't think the Huskies had business being in the tournament at the start of the season. Charles Okwandu called the tourney a great adventure, saying this team can handle everything and beat anybody right now. Enosch Wolf has grown a playoff beard, starting the facial hair fad prior to the Big East tournament.

"[I'll keep it] until we win on Monday," Wolf said. "I don't think we are going to lose."

Me either.

There's a tattoo that sits high on Alex Oriakhi's left arm. In cursive writing, it reads, "Sky's the limit." It seems as though the Huskies took that slogan and ran with it.

Shabazz Napier said the team will go as far as God lets them. Judging by the last three weeks, it's pretty clear God is a UConn fan. Napier understood the high stakes of Saturday's West Regional Final in Anaheim, Calif., saying players don't get many second opportunities. It was Napier who came out with the ball after the final whistle, clutching it like a newborn baby.

"I gave the ball to one of our managers and told him to hold on to it," Napier said.

Nutmeggers need to grab the memory of this postseason stretch and hold onto it. It might wind up being the best in college basketball history.

"I've followed every game during every season, including our 1999 and 2004 championship runs," said Ihor Nadberezny, who earned his B.S.E.E. at UConn in 1989 and M.B.A. in 1991, and is now a native of Redondo Beach, Calif. "While all those were great seasons, watching this team develop over the course of the year has been really special, culminating in the big wins in Anaheim. They've shown us how much you can accomplish when you combine talent and teamwork."

And Nadberezny was there for the beginning of UConn basketball. He was a season ticket holder in Storrs at the start of his college tenure in 1985, went to the 1988 NIT championship at Madison Square Garden and was in the Meadowlands when Tate George hit "The Shot" in 1990s Sweet 16.

It's impossible not to fall in love with this team. Just ask Calhoun.

"This group, who I fell in love with, was going to make noise," Calhoun said.

Nobody else expected that. In April of 2013, 11 months after my graduation, still without a job and living in my parents house, I was expecting to make a trip up to Storrs to flip cars, burn couches and spend a night in jail, after this current freshmen core and prized recruit Andre Drummond led the Huskies to a national championship. I'd never thought they'd be one of four teams left this season. And it's not like I was alone in that regard.

No one knew that this summer, Ray Allen relayed a message to Calhoun from Celtics' point guard Rajon Rondo. After Rondo spent time with Team USA, he said to Allen that the quickest guy they played against was Kemba Walker, and he goes to your school. Who knew a two-and-a-half hour practice after the Senior Day loss to Notre Dame, where Calhoun said he used the same expressions he does on the sideline to get his team to [expletive] the world and just play basketball, would spark such a run? Calhoun even said the expectation this season was to make the NCAA tournament. But he's done his best coaching job ever, keeping Jeremy Lamb humble, not having clocks around at practice and at times flat-out lying to the team.

"It's the most unusual group of kids I've ever been around," Calhoun said as a compliment, adding that the 2011 Huskies have given him a thrill beyond compare.

And this is all for Calhoun. He is quite frankly, bar none, the greatest man in the state of Connecticut's history. After battles with cancer, various health scares and most recently being caught committing NCAA violations, Calhoun needed to be rejuvenated.

"I needed these kids," Calhoun said.

Having Walker may have helped. (A side note, Walker needs to leave. I don't think there is a question that he is already good as gone, but if there is anyone who is still holding hope for a senior season return, let go. He needs to and should go. He's made two Final Fours, won a Big East championship, is the best player in the country, will get his degree and be a lottery pick. Let's enjoy his last two games.)

But Walker and the gang have seriously helped Calhoun's health.

"He looks the best I've seen him in years," said 1999 national champion and former NBA player Jake Voskuhl. "We were all concerned when he had the health scares. Seeing him on television, he didn't look good. Seeing him here, it's the best I've seen him look in quite some time."

And should UConn win two more games, look for Calhoun to possibly retire. Seth Davis of Sports Illustrated said that Calhoun told him, had they won in 2009, he would've gone out a winner. Why wouldn't the Hall of Fame coach walk away with 17 Big East championships, four Final Fours and three national championships? It's been such a trying season on a personal level for Calhoun.

"I don't want to keep going back to it, but I've had two tough personal situations with my sister-in-law, who I loved like a sister, and I have five of those, and my college roommate who I was like a brother with, and a lot of things that happened along the way," Calhoun said. "And I couldn't have asked for a better gift than this team."

What's the best part of the gift Calhoun received?

He's shared it with everyone else.  

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