Calhoun takes UConn into N.I.T.

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Calhoun takes UConn into N.I.T.

By Mary Paoletti
CSNNE.com

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

Celtics aren't asking Al Horford to be 'anything more' than what he is

Celtics aren't asking Al Horford to be 'anything more' than what he is

WALTHAM -- From one media station to the next, Al Horford effortlessly moved about during Boston Celtics Media Day.
 
In between stations, I jokingly asked the nine-year veteran, "Been through a few of these before?"
 
"A couple," he quipped.
 
But Monday was different. And every other Monday going forward this season will be different, too, for the longtime Atlanta Hawks forward, who is now a member of the Boston Celtics after they signed him to a four-year, $113 million contract this summer.
 
With that significant increase in salary comes -- from those outside the Celtics program at least -- a higher level of expectations.
 
"We’re not asking Al to be anything more than him," said coach Brad Stevens.  "He’s a good fit for how we play on offense. He’s a good fit for how we play on defense. He’s a professional. He has a routine. He works hard at his craft. He’s a guy that guys can follow by example."
 
However, Horford joins a Celtics team that -- since the rebuild began in 2013 -- has yet to win 50 games in a single season or get past the first round of the playoffs.
 
And while it will certainly be a collective team effort for Boston to achieve those goals, make no mistake about it: Horford is expected to be the man leading the way.
 
"We need to start building good habits from Day One," Horford said.

Danny Ainge, Boston’s president of basketball operations, is a big fan of Horford’s character and versatility, which has been on display throughout his career.
 
"As much as anything he’s been very consistent over his career," Ainge said. "Shooting the ball, playing multiple positions. He’s a guy that fits in with our system with big guys handling the ball a lot."
 
Horford’s new teammate echoed similar sentiments about the four-time All-Star.
 
And when you listen to his new Celtics teammates talk about him and what he’ll bring to a roster that’s loaded with returnees, there are a couple of common themes that seem to develop.
 
"He brings leadership; hard work," said Avery Bradley.
 
Bradley had a chance to spend some time around Jeff Teague, one of Horford’s former teammates in Atlanta.
 
"He just told me I’m really going to enjoy having him on this team," Bradley said. "He’s going to open the floor for everybody. He’s a great player on the offensive end, defensive end. He knows how to play the game of basketball. To have him be a part of this team, I’m just happy about it."
 
So is Amir Johnson, who will likely start with Horford in the frontcourt for Boston.
 
Last season, Johnson was Boston’s primary rim-protecting big man. With the addition of Horford, Johnson won’t be relied on as heavily to be Boston’s last line of defense, which makes his life easier and, more importantly, makes the Celtics a better team defensively.
 
"[Horford] has so many skills he can contribute to the game," Johnson said. "He can run the floor, block shots, shoot the 3-ball, which is big now. He can do it all. It’ll be a big piece to carry us over the top. We just have to put it all together."