They were not expected to be there and when they got there, it was ugly, but the University of Connecticut Huskies are the 2010-2011 national champions of college basketball.
Led by junior All-American Kemba Walker and Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun, UConn defied all odds this year. A team of freshmen and sophomores with about as much chance at the start of the year as the Royals or Pirates ever have of winning the World Series proved to be one of the most dominant tournament teams (any tournament) in college basketball history.
From Maui to Manhattan to Houston, the Huskies proved they belonged at the top.
For Calhoun and the Huskies, it is the third all time national championship, joining the elite company of UCLA, Kentucky, Indiana, North Carolina, Duke, and Kansas as the only teams with three championships or more. Since winning their first in 1999, no team has been champions more than UConn.
With number three for Calhoun, he himself joins quite a fraternity. The 68-year old, who started his coaching career with a 1-17 record in one season at Lyme-Old Lyme High School in Connecticut, joins Mike Krzyzewski, John Wooden, Bob Knight, and Adolph Rupp as the only coaches to win three. That is quite the list.
UConn was never prominent until Calhoun arrived, but which of his teams are the best of all-time. This article ranks the best five.
Record: 31-5 (15-3 Big East)
Tournaments: Paradise Jam (Champions), Big East Tournament (Quarterfinals), NCAA Tournament (Final Four)
Notable Players: AJ Price, Jerome Dyson, Jeff Adrien, Kemba Walker
This was a very good UConn team, one of only four to reach the Final Four. They started the year off right, beating #16 Miami (FL) and #19 Wisconsin on back to back days in November to win the Paradise Jam in the US Virgin Islands.
It was a dominating season for the Huskies. Even against their Top 25 opponents in the Big East they were able to easily control games. Their only losses came to #8 Georgetown, #4 Pittsburgh, and #4 Pittsburgh again.
The 2009 Big East Tournament was the year of one of the greatest games, and the second longest, in college basketball history. UConn and Syracuse played SIX overtimes in the Quarterfinals. In the end, Syracuse scraped by the Huskies in a game that neither team could be ashamed to lose.
It gave UConn more of a rest for the NCAA Tournament, which helped as they won the West Region for a third time. In all honesty, this was the best team in the Final Four.
Unfortunately for the Huskies, Yahoo had to break a story regarding the recruiting of Nate Miles only days before the match-up with Michigan State. Had it not been for the wearing down the media then gave the school and the team, that could have been a third championship for UConn.
Tournaments: Big East Tournament (Champions), NCAA Tournament (Elite Eight)
Notable Players: Tate George, Chris Smith, Scott Burrell
It is known as the Dream Season for the University of Connecticut.
Jim Calhoun had taken over UConn a couple years before and had slowly been building an elite program. He achieved his goal in 1990.
After an incredible regular season, UConn won its first ever Big East Championship in 1990 by beating Syracuse and Jim Boeheim. They earned the top seed in the East Region, a top seed for the first time ever.
The Sweet 16 provided what became known simply as "The Shot." Down by one and forced to inbound from the far side of the court, UConn's season appeared to be over at the hands of the Clemson Tigers.
Tate George did not let that happen.
Scott Burrell launched a football pass full court which found George on the corner turn and shoot with only one second to go. He hit the buzzer beater and ran right into the locker room as Calhoun's Huskies reached the Elite Eight for the second time ever and the first since 1964.
Unfortunately, they lost to Duke in the Elite Eight on a buzzer beater in overtime.
Record: 33-6 (12-4 Big East)
Tournaments: Preseason NIT (Semifinals), Big East Tournament (Champions), NCAA Tournament (Champions)
Notable Players: Emeka Okafor (2004 National Player of the Year), Ben Gordon, Charlie Villanueva, Hilton Armstrong, Marcus Williams, Josh Boone, Denham Brown
Just look at the roster and it says it all. Okafor, Gordon, Villanueva, Armstrong, Williams, Boone, and Brown all went to the NBA. Taliek Brown and Rashad Anderson added into that group, are you kidding me?!
Top to bottom, this is without a doubt the most talented and deepest team Connecticut has ever had. They had an incredible regular season, never falling lower than 9th in the rankings.
They only lost once at home and had quality losses otherwise: North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, Syracuse, and the team they eventually beat for the National Championship in Georgia Tech.
Despite being Big East champions, UConn ended up the second seed out west. That did not phase the Huskies, who love playing in the West Region. It was an incredibly easy run to the Final Four, winning by 17, 17, 20, and 16 in the West Region against #15 Vermont, #7 DePaul, #6 Vanderbilt, and #8 Alabama.
The toughest game of the tournament came against Duke in the Final Four in San Antonio, where the Huskies held on for a 79-78 victory.
Led by National Player of the Year Emeka Okafor, the Huskies beat Georgia Tech by nine and easily secured their second National Championship.
I put this team at #3 despite being an incredibly deep team because of how easily they handled the expectations put before them. They had an incredibly easy time of winning the National Championship and did so with seven future NBA players.
It was a great coaching job by Calhoun, but it was one of his easiest.
Record: 34-2 (16-2 Big East)
Tournaments: Big East Tournament (Champions), NCAA Tournament (Champions)
Notable Players: Richard Hamilton, Kevin Freeman, Khalid El-Amin
The video at the top says it all.
For most of Husky Nation, including myself, this will always be the UConn team that is cherished the most.
That tends to happen when a team wins a championship for the first time and that is exactly what happened for the University of Connecticut.
Led by future NBA star Richard Hamilton, the Huskies had no trouble becoming Big East and National Champions, well at least Big East champions.
It was not a team of superstars, but this was a group that defined the word team. Every player had a role, from Hamilton, to Souleymane Wane, to Ricky Moore, to Rashmael Jones. Each player filled their role with great success.
The draw was favorable for the Huskies to reach the National Championship, as they easily knocked off Texas-San Antonio, New Mexico, Iowa, Gonzaga, and Ohio State in their run to the final game, but their opponents came in heavy favorites.
Across the court from Connecticut were the Duke Blue Devils, a team that seemed unbeatable. In fact, the 1999 NCAA Tournament had been dubbed "The Duke Invitational" heading in. Mike Krzyzewski's team saw four players: Elton Brand, Trajan Langdon, Corey Maggette, and William Avery, go in the Top 15 of that year's NBA Draft.
Following them two years later would be fellow star Shane Battier. This Duke team, with one loss and a perfect ACC record, was 10 point favorites over the new boys of UConn.
Things have a way of taking an unexpected turn.
UConn gave the Blue Devils everything they could handle in the first half, and Duke only went into the locker room with a 39-37 lead. Spirits were high for Husky fans who knew that fate had a funny way of doing unexpected things.
Connecticut fought all 40 minutes and held a one point lead with 10 seconds to play. Duke had possession, down 75-74 and playing desperate.
Langdon drove the lane and was called for a travel as he threw up a lay-up. Connecticut got the ball into free throw master Khalid El-Amin, who nailed two with seconds left. Duke had time, but Langdon tripped near halfcourt as time expired, and Connecticut won its first ever National Championship.
As Joe D'Ambrosio, the voice of the Huskies put it best: "What once was a dream is now reality...The UConn Huskies are National Champions! Words people in Connecticut thought they'd never hear!" Indeed, he was right.
As I said above, this team taught Connecticut to believe that anything is possible. It was definitely an incredible time to be in Connecticut and this team will certainly hold a special place in fan's hearts forever.
For me, it is the same. I have grown up a Husky fan and by the time I was six, I was finally able to understand what UConn was all about. I went to my first game that season, in January 1999. I will never forget the likes of Freeman, Hamilton, El-Amin, Voskhul, Wane, Saunders, Mourning, Moore, Jones, and company, how they carried themselves, and how they never gave up.
Until this year, this team was hands down number one.
Record: 32-9 (9-9 Big East)
Tournaments: Maui Invitational (Champions), Big East Tournament (Champions), NCAA Tournament (Champions)
Notable Players: Kemba Walker, Jeremy Lamb, Alex Oriakhi
Unbelievable. That is the only word that can describe the 2010-11 edition of the University of Connecticut men's basketball team. Unbelievable.
Looking at the Connecticut roster for this year, you see some striking imbalances. There are seven freshmen (one red-shirted) and two sophomores while there are only two juniors (one walk-on) and three seniors (one walk-on).
Playing in an elite conference like the Big East and playing the schedule UConn had, that should be a problem right? Think again.
UConn began the season on an incredible note, winning three games in three days against Wichita State, #2 Michigan State, and #9 Kentucky to win the EA Sports Maui Invitational. At that point, the unranked Huskies climbed all the way to 7th in the polls.
They would falter at times, but for the most part, Calhoun was able to keep the ship afloat. The legendary coach stated on many occasions that this group of kids, with all their characters and personalities was one of, if not his favorite teams to coach.
As he told Andy Katz after becoming only the fifth coach to win three national championships, "every coach deserves to have a group of kids like this at least once."
With so many young kids, he gets them again, and again.
At first, things really seemed to be the Kemba Walker Show. He put this team on his shoulders, as was the case all year, but the difference at the start was that there was no supporting cast, no player who could regularly step up and be of assistance.
That changed during the Big East season, as freshman Jeremy Lamb and sophomore Alex Oriakhi were able to take some weight off Kemba's shoulders.
UConn did more than anyone could have expected. They won Maui of course. After that, Big East play started. It was a tough first three games, as it would be for any young team who has to play at Pittsburgh and at Notre Dame in the span of a few days. Between them, South Florida was able to force overtime.
The Huskies stayed calm. After Notre Dame, they went down to Austin and picked up what is considered the best non-conference road win for a power six school this season, beating Texas in overtime. The Huskies started to believe.
There was rough patches along the way. Slip ups against Marquette and West Virginia and gut-wrenching losses to Louisville, Notre Dame, and St. John's did not help the Huskies morale at all.
After losing by three to Notre Dame on March 5th, everything changed. Why? That ended up being the last time the Huskies would lose a game in the 2010-11 season.
What followed has been referred to as Maui in Manhattan, the Miracle in Manhattan, and several other creative names.
What it was was history.
The Huskies, the nine seed in the Big East Tournament won FIVE GAMES IN FIVE DAYS against DePaul, #22 Georgetown, #3 Pittsburgh, #11 Syracuse, and #14 Louisville to win the conference tournament, considered by many to be as hard to win as the National Championship itself.
It was around the time of the Pittsburgh game, when the highlight of the season, Kemba Walker's ankle breaking, step-back jumper at the buzzer lifted the Huskies over the top seed, that things began to change. There was a vibe of "maybe, just maybe" and whispers that this team could do something magical.
The Huskies had hooked Husky Nation into taking this ride with them. I had the privilege of being at the Championship Game against Louisville. When the buzzer sounded and after it had sunk in and the tears of joy had disappeared, I said "this team is going to win the National Championship."
Lo and behold.
UConn took the West by storm, defeating Bucknell, Cincinnati, San Diego State, and Arizona to reach the Final Four, where they beat Kentucky before knocking off Butler to win the 2011 National Championship.
No one expected this even a month and a half ago. The idea of UConn being National Champions did not emerge until March 12th. Again, it goes to show you that anything is possible and that things are not always what they seem or what you expect.
There is no doubt that without the play of the youngsters, the Huskies are not National Champions right now, but no one is more important, or more well loved, on the team than Kemba Walker.
The junior, who graduates in May, earned a spot on the First Team All-American team and in all reality was the best player in the country. While Jimmer Fredette got the Naismith Award, Kemba actually led his team to a National Championship while being the best all-around player in the land.
As Jeff Hathaway, the Huskies Director of Athletics, stated today at the rally at Gampel, Kemba Walker had the greatest season in the 111 years of men's basketball at UConn. Jim Calhoun also stated his agreement.
“He has had an incredible season, that no one before has ever had at UConn,” Calhoun said. “When you get in that category of being called by one name ... that’s pretty special," (New Britain Herald).
These words were prelude to an unexpected and emotional surprise at UConn's championship rally, when Kemba Walker was inducted into an elite fraternity, becoming only the 14th member of the Huskies of Honor for the men's basketball team.
It was a special case for a special player as normally there is a five year minimum wait to be enshrined.
The enshrinement was known about by three people, including Calhoun and Hathaway, but not Walker, who burst into tears as the chant of "One More Year" erupted throughout Gampel Pavilion.
It was a special ending to a special season. The 2010-11 Huskies defied all odds, were told they couldn't, they wouldn't, and it was impossible.
There is no such thing as impossible. The 2010-11 Huskies proved that. They are the National Champions. They are the greatest team in Connecticut men's basketball history.