It was supposed to be another down year for the Connecticut Huskies men's basketball team.
Despite being one of the elite programs of the modern era, UConn faced a rough 2009-2010 season after reaching the Final Four in 2009. In a year clouded by NCAA recruiting violations, the Huskies struggled throughout the year despite some big wins and suffered an exit to Virginia Tech in the NIT.
The Huskies lost some of their core, including Jerome Dyson and Stanley Robinson. In 2010-2011, Jim Calhoun welcomed in seven freshmen, five of whom play regularly. This was a factor in their preseason No. 10 ranking in the Big East Conference, meaning around 6-12, because back in October, nobody expected the Big East to get 11 NCAA Tournament teams, let alone be playing for the national championship.
That is exactly what will happen Monday night as the Huskies held off the Kentucky Wildcats, 56-55, in the Final Four on Saturday to advance to the third national championship game in school history.
Each of the Huskies' national championship game appearances has come since 1999. Calhoun and the Huskies are 2-0 in such games with a 77-74 win in 1999 over Duke and an 82-73 victory in 2004 over Georgia Tech.
It has been a magical year for the Huskies. They start three freshmen, a sophomore and a junior. That junior also happens to be the nation's best overall player, Kemba Walker. He is a main reason why UConn has silenced the critics this year.
Things got going for UConn very early on. After a quick 2-0 start with wins over Stony Brook and Vermont, Connecticut got out of the cold and headed to Hawaii, where, with wins in three consecutive days over Wichita State, No. 2 Michigan State and No. 9 Kentucky (by 17), the unranked Huskies claimed the EA Sports Maui Invitational championship once again.
It was UConn's first appearance in Maui since also winning in 2005, when a Denham Brown buzzer-beater from the corner helped UConn past Adam Morrison and Gonzaga, 65-63.
The Huskies would make one of the largest climbs in ranking history the next week, jumping all the way to No. 7 in the nation. For most of the year, the Huskies would remain in the Top 15, dropping only as low as 22 for one week.
The Huskies plowed through their non-conference schedule upon returning to Storrs, but then came the rough part of the schedule for a young team: the start of the Big East.
UConn opened at Pittsburgh and was played out of the gym by a far more experienced team. It was a good lesson for a young team playing its first true road game and playing against one of the conference's and the nation's elite. After that, UConn seemed to grow up a bit.
It took a little time, but after squeaking by South Florida in overtime and barely falling at Notre Dame, the Huskies got what ended up being arguably the greatest non-conference road victory of 2010-11 in a power conference. The Huskies went to Austin and knocked off the Texas Longhorns, 82-81, in overtime.
It was a back-and-forth game with one of the best programs around and UConn stuck with them and took the win over Rick Barnes's team for a second straight year.
That win sparked a six-game winning streak which included wins over Villanova, Tennessee and Marquette.
After losing to Louisville in double overtime and Syracuse back-to-back, it was a back-and-forth end to the regular season for the Huskies, who ended with a narrow loss to Notre Dame. Connecticut finished at 21-9, including 9-9 in the Big East.
That Notre Dame loss is the last loss UConn suffered.
The Big East Tournament is the most challenging conference tournament in the nation. For seeds Nos. 9 through 16 to win, they have to get through five straight days, four days of the 5-8 teams, and three of the 1-4s.
UConn, the No. 9 seed, was looking to be the first team to ever win five games to win a conference tournament. Not only that, it had to win five straight days. It did just that.
Five wins in five days over DePaul, No. 22 Georgetown, No. 3 Pittsburgh, No. 11 Syracuse and No. 14 Louisville gave UConn the Big East crown for the first time since 2004.
Walker dominated the tournament, scoring 130 points. Freshmen Jeremy Lamb, Shabazz Napier and Roscoe Smith and sophomore Alex Oriakhi proved that it is not just the Kemba Show, as they were key to UConn's success.
The miracle run earned UConn a No. 3 seed in the West, a favorite region of the Huskies historically. Wins over Bucknell, Cincinnati, San Diego State and Arizona put UConn in the Final Four for the fourth time.
Then came the rematch with Kentucky. Kemba's 18 led the Huskies past the Wildcats and they now are preparing for tomorrow's championship against Butler, which is in its second straight championship game.
People want to give the Bulldogs the advantage because this is their second straight championship appearance; however, do not think that they are the better team. Connecticut is led by the nation's best player and has an incredible supporting cast that has been crucial to the Huskies' success.
It also helps to have Jim Calhoun, who is now 5-1 in the Final Four and 2-0 in the national championship.
It will be an incredible game. Walker vs. Shelvin Mack. Alex Oriakhi vs. Matt Howard. UConn's supporting cast vs. Butler's. Jim Calhoun vs. Brad Stevens. The matchups are incredible!
In the end, I think UConn takes this game. This is a team that, no matter how tired it is, finds that extra bit of fuel and takes the game to its opponents. The Huskies have more heart than any team in the country and have the virtue of a Hall-of-Fame, championship coach in Calhoun.
Do not forget that Kemba also loves the big-time games, where he has been known to thrive and hit the big shots.
Storrs will be celebrating two times over this week after both the Connecticut men and women take home the national championships.
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