On March 6 Connecticut lost to Notre Dame 70-67, in a game played at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs. It was the Huskies' seventh loss in 11 games, and as Jim Calhoun's team prepared to open the Big East tournament against DePaul, the head coach talked about his team's season:
Bottom line is, did we not play as well? Did the schedule catch up with us? There are so many factors involved that I don't know....Given that we played 21 teams in the top-100, they've had a very good season. Now we have to hope to have a very good postseason.
UConn did indeed have a very good postseason. So incredibly good, in fact, that it's worth asking: What in the world just happened? How did a struggling 9-9 Big East team manage to turn things around and win 11 games in a row? Was there any way of knowing in advance that this team was capable of claiming the 2011 national championship?
Before we close the book on the 2010-11 college basketball season, let's take one last look at an incredible turnaround, one that propelled Connecticut from Madison Square Garden on a sleepy Tuesday afternoon in March to a celebration at center court in Reliant Stadium on the first Monday of April.
January 29 to March 5: A mediocre Big East team
By the close of the regular season, the Huskies' championship at the EA Sports Maui Invitational in November seemed like a distant memory. Kemba Walker was still performing heroic deeds just as he had in November, but there were signs that all that heroism was beginning to wear down UConn's star player. Walker's two-point accuracy trended steadily downward as the season progressed, and Calhoun's offense started to look very un-Calhoun-like.
Over the years Connecticut has been famous for winning without shooting many threes, but during this 4-7 stretch to close out Big East play the Huskies looked shockingly normal in this department, devoting 32 percent of their shots to attempts from beyond the arc. That may not sound like a high number, but for Calhoun it's unheard of. This perimeter orientation seemed to take Connecticut out of its game. The team's two-point accuracy was low, free throw attempts were few, and even the defense appeared to catch the general lethargy.
Think of it this way. During their last 11 regular season Big East games, UConn was outscored by 0.03 points for every possession they played. Another major-conference team that displayed this same scoring margin in conference play this year was Miami. If you had told anyone on the morning of March 8 that Connecticut was about to win the national championship, they would have laughed in your face. Correctly.
March 8 to 26: An explosion on offense
Connecticut opened the Big East tournament in the most humbling surroundings imaginable. While top seeds like Pitt and Notre Dame wouldn't even take the floor for another two days, struggling UConn had to tip off the tournament at noon on Tuesday -- against DePaul and in front of a mere smattering of fans. There was no way of knowing that this was the beginning of a spectacular 11-game run to the national championship, of course, but if anyone cared to look there was no denying that the Huskies looked very different all the sudden. Even taking into account the opponent, scoring 97 points in 81 possessions marked a departure for Calhoun's team. That day Walker and Jeremy Lamb scored a combined 45 points on 15-of-26 shooting.
The Walker-Lamb lightning strike against the hapless Blue Demons was a harbinger. Maybe Calhoun gave a heck of a pep talk. Maybe he burned a calendar or smashed some videotapes. But whatever he did, his team got back to basics on offense: attacking the paint, crashing the offensive glass, and, most of all, getting to the line. No single facet of Connecticut's performance, on either side of the ball, changed nearly as much as the number of free throws they suddenly recorded once they reached Madison Square Garden. At the same time, their number of attempts from beyond the arc dwindled, and offensive rebounds shot up. Connecticut was doing what it did best: driving the ball into the lane and either making the shot, rebounding the miss (often thanks to Alex Oriakhi), and/or getting to the line.
It was this Connecticut 2.0 offense that won a Big East tournament title, recording close wins against Pitt, Syracuse, and Louisville along the way. Winning five games in five days was, goodness knows, impressive enough. But for my money what was even more impressive was that the Huskies were able to sustain this level of performance on offense beyond those incredible five days. After all, we have seen teams in the past that have put together amazing runs in their conference tournament, only to make a quick exit from the NCAA tournament.
Not this group. UConn tore through Bucknell and Cincinnati in Washington, D.C., before reverting to Big East tournament form and eking out much closer wins against San Diego State and, most dramatically, Arizona in Anaheim. The venues and opponents varied, but the Huskies' offense was a constant. In nine games from the opening of the Big East tournament through the Elite Eight, Connecticut scored an incredible 1.16 points per possession. They played several close games in that stretch, but not one team succeeded in scoring more points than this offense.
Clearly Walker, Lamb and company had hit their stride. This offense was on an incredible roll, and the challenge for any opponent was going to be finding a way to shut down this attack. Final Four previews were dutifully written up along these lines.
Actually everything was about to change one last time.
April 2 to 4: Offense becomes irrelevant
If you watched Connecticut beat Butler in the national championship game by the score of 53-41, you don't need me to tell you this defense played an incredible game. But maybe I can add some clarity to the term "incredible."
In two games in Houston, the Huskies held their opponents -- Butler and Kentucky -- to 15-of-66 shooting (23 percent) on their two-point attempts. Teams facing Connecticut at Reliant Stadium were given 120 possessions to do with what they could. Those opponents came away with just 96 points. That nets out to just 0.80 points per possession, a level of defense which is unheard of anywhere, much less against Final Four-caliber competition. In their final two games, the Huskies were able to do what Calhoun's teams have long been renowned for. They denied their opponents any two-point success whatsoever, and they did so without fouling. It was a tour de force, and it won Connecticut the national championship.
The way that UConn played over their last 11 games is a tremendous gift to future teams. From this point forward you can be struggling, you can even be losing games right up until early March -- and still have hope. Starting now, a very regular regular season can no longer be considered sufficient grounds for ruling out what Jim Calhoun wished for but may not have believed he'd get this time around: "a very good postseason."
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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