|Calhoun was in high spirits and reflective of himself and this team following Tuesday's win. (AP)|
By Matt Norlander
NEW YORK — He had a slight hitch in his gait, but he lifted himself up onto the platform, plunked himself down at the podium and let out a five-minute ramble session that was vintage Jim Calhoun -- in the good way. The 69-year-old UConn coach is feeling better, improving by the hour it seems. Calhoun looked happy to be back at the Big East tournament, where his team has now won six straight games, but just has thrilled to win a game and get comfortable in his coaching skin again.
“I feel like I couldn’t pull the trick, like I was exhausted, because you saw me on the sideline [today],” Calhoun said, joking that he couldn't avoid the postgame presser, as he did during UConn's Senior Day Saturday after the team won against Pitt.
There were some stock questions to Ryan Boatright and Jeremy Lamb about last year’s incredible championship Big East run, which also began against DePaul, but today’s UConn win was about Calhoun getting back into his swing slowly but eagerly. Unlike the win against Pittsburgh, Calhoun had the energy and was ready to engage, to pontificate, to the media about his team, his life, this season. He even stopped in the bowels of Madison Square Garden after the big press conference to give a television interview before his SID whisked him away back to the seclusion and cool-down of the locker room.
Eight days after surgery to repair nerve damage in his back, Calhoun has clearly had time to reflect on the part of the season that affected him the most — the eight games he did not coach in (the Huskies were 3-5 in that stretch). He joked about not needing a cane anymore, and what a good thing that is, lest he smack a ref or two with it. He also went big-picture.
"It's an emotional time, it’s been a different kind of season, but through it all, somewhat by separation, I realized how much I cared about these kids. … It’s my job, but also my love, and that’s why I came back to my basketball team.”
The 81-67 win over No. 16 DePaul doesn’t mean much, but Calhoun’s outlook and health does. Tuesday’s victory was No. 34 for Calhoun in the Big East tournament, putting him second all-time on that list, passing Georgetown’s John Thompson. Calhoun spoke to the media while former Husky Caron Butler huddled with the team in the locker room on the other side of the building.
“I think if you feel you can do anything, just being a fresh voice coming back, then I owed it to them if I could get back,” Calhoun said. “And I did. And obviously the last two games have been very fulfilling.”
Three teams -- Vandy, Nova and UConn -- played 21 games top against RPI 100 teams this season. It's why UConn could computer-number its way into the field, should it fall to West Virginia Wednesday. But all those challenges, the No. 1 schedule strength in the country, Calhoun said he now sees why UConn’s underperformed and had a letdown of a season to date.
“We didn’t have time to build up our confidence, as I look back,” he said.
If only for a day, week or month, this Calhoun is as thankful for the job he has -- and the time remaining with it. Granted I've not been to 1/50th of the press conferences as the beat writers for the Huskiies, but this side of Calhoun seemed rare to me. To be safe, I asked a few of those writers if they'd ever seen Calhoun like this before:
“I have great respect, generally speaking, the way you (the media) treated me and my family" he said. “Almost to a man and woman, you showed me and my family a great deal of respect through this, and I really appreciate that.”
The writers said they couldn't remember a time where Calhoun ever collectively thanked the media like that. Not after the skin-cancer treatments, not after the prostate surgery. He'd never been so grateful for everything following a game like this.
UConn’s not in the field yet. I don’t think beating DePaul squarely gets the Huskies in with such a token win. In basketball terms, today had no upside and all downside. But in coaching terms, Calhoun’s presence and improved energy means a lot to his team, the program, UConn’s fans. But now it's clear to see his post coach still means the most to him -- as much now as ever.