Fresh off its painful two-game losing streak in New Jersey, the UConn basketball team returned home to Storrs late Saturday night/early Sunday morning and assembled for noontime practice at Gampel Pavilion.
Although we in the media haven’t been allowed into practice very much lately, this was as animated as I’ve seen Jim Calhoun in years, maybe decades. He was on his players so intensely I thought we were going to have a Justin Brown moment.
Justin Brown you say? Yes, the same backup center from Australia who toiled for the Huskies in the early 2000’s.
Brown was the unfortunate victim of a Calhoun explosion during a practice some years ago. Watching his team loaf through a practice at the Hartford Civic Center one January Calhoun picked up the ball that had been turned over and fired it in Brown’s direction. The ball missed Brown by some 10 feet, though his reaction was if it had grazed his chin.
“Get out!” Calhoun bellowed.
The players, not realizing if Calhoun meant Brown alone or if he really was kicking them all out of practice, stood still.
“Get the (truck) out!” Calhoun repeated.
It’s moments like that, and the exclamation he uttered later that same season about his point guard on that team (the headline on this blog entry) that are at the same time funny, amazing and, at times, quite necessary to fire up a team.
Coming off two woeful efforts in New Jersey and with a game against West Virginia straight ahead Monday night (7, ESPN2), Calhoun was at his most fiery Sunday.
He may have set an NCAA record for F-bombs at one practice, though I’m still scouring the record book for that one. Still, he also spent a great deal more time teaching than in some practices, getting specific with things like finding the short corner hole in the 2-3 zone and closing out on shooters.
Among the highlights from Calhoun in the hour-and-a-half practice:
He emphasized running offense full speed, setting good screens, and staying in the offense all the way through a possession.
“Keep working all the way (freakin’) through it,” Calhoun said.
Ball possession was obviously one of the key talking points: “You had 20 (freakin’) turnovers last night! You’re trying to get 50 today!” Calhoun said.
He pleaded for energy most of the day: “We have to work! We can’t lose on lack of effort!” Calhoun said.
When the team took a “break” to shoot free throws and slowly began moving to different baskets: “Hustle up! I don’t want you (freakin’) walking! Hustle up!” Calhoun said.
Calhoun’s language, demeanor and intensity weren’t that much a surprise. Perhaps the biggest surprise? That he walked off the court and promptly told the media how well his team had practiced.
“I thought they worked incredibly hard today,” Calhoun said.
The coach was asked why he was so boisterous in the workout. At first he scoffed and pointed out (correctly) that we in the media aren’t around every day and that’s like this a lot. Then he admitted he was intentionally pretty excitable.
“Why would I come out dead-ass if I expect them to respond?” Calhoun said. “Life’s all about getting up in the morning…It’s not if you get knocked on your ass, it’s how you get up and what you do after that. We got knocked on our ass the last couple games a little bit, knocked off our kilter a little bit and we have to get back on.”
Freshman guard Ryan Boatright said it was the most animated he’d seen Calhoun.
“Yeah, definitely,” Boatright said. “Losing two he’s really fired up.”
Some, including center Andre Drummond, disagreeed.
“No,” Drummond said. “I’ve been to games before so I’ve seen him worse.”
— Boatright said he isn’t thinking much about the fact that he was once a West Virginia commit and now he’s facing the Mountaineers.
“Nah,” Boatright said.
“I don’t even think about it, especially coming off two losses,” he added. “It’s all about winning.”
— So what was the bus ride home from New Jersey like for the Huskies?
“You heard a lot of crickets,” Drummond said. “You didn’t hear much talking at all.”
— Jeremy Lamb is getting some rough treatment from opponents recently. It’s nothing new for players who are ID’d as a team’s top weapon.
“It appears that way. There’s nothing we can do about that except play through,” Calhoun said. “The Big East has always allowed for physical play.”
“He’s going to have to adjust to that,” Calhoun continued, adding when prodded: “Stand up to it and get through it.”
— Don’t expect wholesale changes from the Huskies. Niels Giffey will start again at small forward, for instance.
“It’s not a time to do anything more than work harder than we have,” Calhoun said. “We identified the problem and we have to work harder. That’s what we’ll do.”