By Mary Paoletti
The National Invitation Tournament doesn't have the postseason pomp and flair that Connecticut is used to. But the challenges Jim Calhoun's Huskies have faced this season will not end when they enter the 2010 NIT.
"With a quick glance at the bracket, it looks like the field is remarkably tough," the UConn coach said. "There are plenty of teams that were in position to make the NCAA tournament, and I think that with all of the parity in the field, it will be very difficult to win and advance."
Calhoun is talking about teams like Illinois, Arizona State, Virginia Tech and Mississippi State, all of which had a shot at an NCAA tourney berth last Sunday. Last season Illinois was a No. 5 seed in the field of 65 and ASU was a No. 6 that ventured on to the Sweet Sixteen. Other heavy hitters who fell from last year's grace are Mississippi State (No. 13 seed), Dayton (No. 11 seed, Sweet Sixteen), Memphis (No. 2 seed, Elite Eight) and the No. 1 seed and national champion, North Carolina.
This will be no cake walk for Connecticut.
Not much has been easy for the 17-15 Huskies. After reaching the Final Four in 2009, the team struggled to find a new identity this year. UConn at first gave credence to its preseason No. 12 national ranking by winning 11 of its first 13 games. But things began to unravel during the weeks that followed.
Against top-rated teams like Kentucky, Duke, Texas, West Virginia and Villanova, the Huskies showcased their speed and strength. They looked fluid on transition, strong in the paint, and dogged on defense. But they fell completely out of sync when facing lesser-feared foes like Providence, Cincinnati and South Florida. In these games UConn couldn't rebound, couldn't hang on to the ball, and couldn't even penetrate the perimeter when on offense -- much less execute a crisp play. It's as though a cancerous unpredictability is buried at the core of this team that won't allow any of the successes to flourish.
Consequently, Calhoun's postseason ambitions are modest.
"Our goal is to continue to play and give it our best," he said in a statement.
UConn's best will have to rise above its last few efforts if the team plans to seriously compete in this tough NIT field. It was those final four losses, beyond the season's other disappointments, that made up the minds of the NCAA Selection Committee. The last of them, a defeat by St. John's in the Big East tournament, put a line through Connecticut's name; the 73-51 scoring margin wiped it from the board completely. Hopes of returning to the Big Dance came to a bitter end.
At least it wasn't the end of the season.
UConn tips off against Northeastern Tuesday night at 7 p.m. Though college hoops fans around the country might not be anxiously watching with brackets clutched to their chests, the game is an important one for UConn. There are five seniors on the roster who want just one more chance to win. There are also five freshman who would benefit from logging minutes of postseason play in any tournament.
And their coach? He'll have to hurdle some nostalgia before getting down to business.
"Obviously, playing Northeastern has special meaning for me," Calhoun said. "Northeastern is a place that gave me a chance to be a head coach and a place where I have a lot of great memories."
A sincere sentiment, no doubt, but it's not one that will cloud the focus of a 33-year veteran. There is still plenty of work for Calhoun to do.
Acceptance of this new challenge -- to take this tournament one step at a time, to 'keep playing' -- might help shed some of the struggle between talent and unmet expectations that's burdened his team this year. UConn needs to leave that St. John's loss back in Madison Square Garden. The glamour wins over Texas, Villanova and West Virginia should all be forgotten too. The Huskies will miss the real madness of March and that fact should leave them humbled and hungry.
And they should hope, freer to fight.
Mary Paoletti is on Twitter at http:twitter.comMary_Paoletti