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NCAA MEN'S BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT

UConn Can Finish What It Started

Huskies were No. 1 in the preseason, and now only Alabama stands between them and the Final Four.

March 27, 2004|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

PHOENIX — Let us reintroduce Connecticut, the preseason national champion.

The Huskies are trying to win the real championship now, not the magazine-cover title handed out before the first game.

Connecticut (30-6) lost to Georgia Tech in November and hasn't been ranked No. 1 since January.

"We had a lot of expectations on us at the beginning of the season," point guard Taliek Brown said. "Everyone chose us to be No. 1 and win the whole thing. A lot of things happened in the season. We had some downfalls."

Now the Huskies are on the brink of the Final Four as they prepare to play Coach Mark Gottfried's upstart Alabama team in the regional final here today.

"At this point, you can't consider them underdogs. They've played too many good people along the way," Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun said.

Defending champion Syracuse, for example: The Crimson Tide (20-12) sent the Orangemen home Thursday.

The slender but determined bunch also ended No. 1-ranked Stanford's season a week ago.

"We haven't seen a team with five people as quick in quite a while," Calhoun said.

If Connecticut can get past Alabama and win two more games in San Antonio, the Huskies will have their second national title. They won their first in 1999, when a UConn team led by Richard Hamilton and Khalid El-Amin upset Duke.

"Everybody talks about, 'How do you feel?' I feel we're good enough to win a national championship," Calhoun said. "We just have to be good enough to win a 40-minute game against Alabama.

"A couple of teams that I would have guessed, if they hadn't run into a great 40 minutes by somebody else or a not-so-good 40 minutes by themselves, they'd be playing too with a chance to win the national championship.

"As I said before, I guarantee you, there are folks sitting at home good enough to win the national championship. We don't want to be one of them."

There is absolutely no doubt Connecticut is good enough to win after coasting through three tournament games by an average margin of 18 points.

The talk all season has been about shot-blocking center Emeka Okafor and shooting guard Ben Gordon, but what makes an impression about Connecticut now is how many really good players the Huskies have.

Connecticut goes seven deep with players who would start for just about any team in the country -- though of course only five of them can start for Connecticut.

"They've got a very talented front line, and the guys coming off the bench are just as good as the starters," Alabama forward Kennedy Winston said.

Okafor, a junior who will turn pro after the season, led the nation with 23 double-doubles and 4.2 blocks a game.

On the perimeter, there's Gordon, a junior who has scored 25 or more points seven times this season and has had as many as eight three-pointers in a game.

Then there's sophomore forward Rashad Anderson, who only recently became a starter, replacing Denham Brown, who has a sore knee.

Anderson made six consecutive three-pointers in the first-round victory over Vermont and had three crucial threes against Vanderbilt.

"Instant offense. I mean, instant offense," Calhoun said. "Sometimes I think when he's at the scorer's table, he's going to take his first jump shot from there."

There is Josh Boone, a 6-foot-10, 230-pound freshman forward who has started all but two games and took care of most of the defense that held Vanderbilt star Matt Freije to eight points.

Taliek Brown has been much maligned, but the senior is playing well now. He has more assists than any player in Connecticut history, five double-figure assist games this season and, more than anyone else, he makes UConn's running game go.

Off the bench, Connecticut has 6-11 Charlie Villanueva, a player many expected to go straight to the NBA out of high school, and Denham Brown, who was very good early in the season but has faded lately. And 6-11 sophomore Hilton Armstrong has been playing 11 minutes a game as a reserve since the tournament began.

Good enough to win? No doubt.

Will they?

Calhoun has seen his share of twists and turns and last-second shots and knows some team can always play what he calls "a magical 40 minutes."

Okafor understands.

"Not everything works out," he said. "You can't kill yourself for not winning the national championship. It's a hard thing to do. We're going to take our best stab at it."

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