March 15, 2012
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Connecticut isn't defending anything.
Oh, coach Jim Calhoun knows everyone will call the Huskies the defending champions when they open the NCAA tournament against Iowa State (22-10) on Thursday night. And, by definition, that's right.
To defend means something can be taken away, however, and that title UConn won last year isn't going anywhere.
"It's locked away, put away," Calhoun said Wednesday. "I always felt this team pushed too hard, too much, to try to be something it wasn't yet. And that's somewhat of why we had an up-and-down season for us. ... I think they're not chasing something now. They're playing basketball."
Iowa State (22-10) might not have Connecticut's tradition; its only Final Four appearance coming way back in 1944. The Cyclones can't match the Huskies (20-13) for consistency, either, this being their first NCAA appearance since 2005, when coach Fred Hoiberg was still dropping 3-pointers in the NBA.
But the Cyclones are not exactly slouches, as their No. 8 seed indicates, having knocked off Big 12 behemoths Kansas, Baylor and Kansas State this year.
"We've been trying to talk about that a lot the last few days," Hoiberg said. "It's such a tough, grueling schedule. But at the same time, you understand how well prepared you'll be once you play on the stage we're about to play on."
As UConn (20-13) has shown repeatedly, however, it's never more dangerous than when it's going for broke.
Last year the Huskies won five games in five days to clinch the BIG EAST title, then steamrolled through the NCAA tournament to win their third title. After slumping through the latter part of this season - coinciding with Calhoun's monthlong absence with back problems - Connecticut ripped off three straight wins before losing to No. 1 Syracuse in the BIG EAST tournament.
"We're starting over, fresh chance, and we have an opportunity," Calhoun said. "We earned that opportunity."
While UConn still has two of the country's best guards in Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier, this Huskies team is very different than the one that bulldozed its way through the month of March last year.
Freshman center Andre Drummond is "maybe the biggest guy any of our players ever see," Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said, averaging almost eight rebounds and three blocks per game. Throw 6-foot-9 "forward" Alex Oriakhi in there, and the paint may as well be the Bermuda Triangle for opposing offenses.
Oh, Drummond can score, too, averaging 10.2 points on 54 percent shooting.
"Not only is he big, he's one of those bigs that gets up and down the floor," Hoiberg said. "You don't see that a lot with the guys that size. They throw him alley-oops, he beats his man to the rim. It doesn't look like he ever gets tired, either. He poses a big problem."
But the Cyclones will give as good as they're going to get with Royce White.
At 6-8 and 270 pounds, White is listed as a forward. But he's really more of a hybrid of every position on the floor. Not only does he lead Iowa State in rebounding (9.2) and blocks (0.9), he's their top scorer (13.1 points), and also leads the Cyclones in assists (5.1) and steals (1.2). He's in the top five in the Big 12 in both rebounding and assists.
"You can't simulate him," Calhoun said. "We've seen the kids who can shoot. We've seen the kids that can post up. But he's a unique basketball player and hard to simulate in practice. He's a handful, without a question."
He also could make Drummond less of a threat.
White has no problem passing the ball - when Oklahoma limited him to one shot, he simply dished out seven assists as the Cyclones won 77-70 - and his unselfishness has helped make Iowa State one of the most dangerous teams from beyond the arc. They have four - count 'em, four - players with 50 or more 3-pointers and rank seventh in the country with 8.9 3s per game.
"If you put the right plays in, put the right action, if you get out in transition and run and get the shots up before the defense gets set ... you're going to create some looks," Hoiberg said.
And yes, the Cyclones have noticed that UConn ranks 179th in the country in 3-point defense, allowing opponents to shoot 34.3 percent from beyond the arc.
"You're right, they're attacking two things that, during the year, have reared its ugly head for us," Calhoun said. "We block shots down low very well but we haven't taken away the kind of penetration I'd like to see. And, at a particular point in seven or eight games, we were just awful from (3-point range). We've worked hard and gotten better at it, but we're going to be put to the ultimate test."
And if they fail, well, so be it. They'll always have that title from last year.