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

5 reasons the Celtics will get the No. 1 seed

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5 reasons the Celtics will get the No. 1 seed

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Haggerty: Signs of panic starting to show as losses mount for B's

Haggerty: Signs of panic starting to show as losses mount for B's

BOSTON -- For the third straight season, the Bruins are showing all the ugly, telltale signs of a hockey club poised to take a nosedive out of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The short-attention span Bruins returned in a 6-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday night at TD Garden, and proceeded to blow three one-goal leads in the second period before totally collapsing in the final 20 minutes of the game. Three unanswered third goals later, the Bruins were understandably downtrodden and accountable for a performance that kicked up so many bad memories from the last couple of seasons.

“We all have to look at ourselves in the mirror and we can’t point fingers. Everyone has to step up and if every guy is going to do their job, including myself, then the rest will follow, you know?” said David Krejci. “But we hadn’t done that [against Tampa Bay] at all. The last two games against Toronto and Ottawa, I thought we worked hard. But for whatever reason [against Tampa] – maybe we thought it was going to come easy – we just shot ourselves in the foot.

“Like I said, each player has to be better, including myself, and if we don’t look at ourselves in the mirror that’s what’s going to happen. We’ll be losing and we need to win games. We have a team, we all believe, we know we can play well. We know we can win hockey games. We have a great game plan, but [against Tampa] I guess we just thought it was going to come easy.”

Even worse there were clear signs of panic in Boston’s game as things unfolded in an unsightly manner on the Garden ice.

Clearly it wasn’t about talent on Thursday night, and instead it was about focus, concentration and paying attention to the fine details that can come back to haunt you late in the season. The Bruins scored three goals in the second period with David Pastrnak, Zdeno Chara and Riley Nash each lighting the lamp, but it took 44 seconds, 24 seconds and 1 minute, 35 seconds respectively in the second period for the Bolts to things up.

That’s the kind of instant buckling and crumbling under pressure we’ve seen in the past from the Bruins late in seasons, and we’re seeing it again despite a different coach and some new, hard-nosed players like David Backes. That lack of composure combined with a pinch of panic is a potentially disastrous mix for the Black and Gold, just as it has been for the last three years.

“Those follow up shifts need to be our best shifts of the game. They’re when you can either bury a team, or when you get scored on to have a great response, and to show that you’re not going away [if you’re the team trailing]. I don’t think they were our best shifts. They were probably some of our least [effective] in the form of execution, least form of desperation and fortitude to just impose what we’re going to do on the other team.

[Tampa] certainly made good on their chances, there’s no question about that. But I think we led into them way too much and the result is the result that we don’t get points again. We’re four [losses] in a row here, but this needs to stop Saturday [against the Islanders] or the bleeding starts to get profuse after that. The guys are in this room. We know it. We’ve seen it. We need to look in the mirror.”

It goes beyond a thoroughly gross second period, however.

The Bruins last line of defense, No. 1 goaltender Tuukka Rask, crumbled in the second and third period as things were falling apart around him. Anton Stralman beat him high to the short-side, glove side for the game-tying goal on a transition play, and Jonathan Drouin snapped one past him from the face-off circle that dipped under his glove hand for the game-winner.

It was a soft, inexcusable goal allowed in a hugely important game, and was part of five goals allowed on 28 shots for the former Vezina Trophy winner. After the game Rask seemed frazzled, his voice getting soft and trailing off when it was his turn to accept responsibility for a giant stink bomb tossed down on the Garden ice.

“You have to [pick up the team]. A lot of the time that’s the case, the goalie has to make a couple extra stops there and today I didn’t,” said Tuukka Rask. “That’s part of my job to accept the fact that sometimes it’s your fault. There were a couple of times I should’ve made the save, but it happens sometimes…”

The high pressure situation with things spiraling out of control even seemed to be getting to their best, most established players with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand forcing things down a goal in the third period. Bergeron and Marchand were put back together with David Pastrnak in the second and third periods with Bruce Cassidy looking for answers, and they attempted to execute a D-zone face-off play that’s worked a few times for them in the last few years.

It involves Bergeron winning the draw, and then either Marchand or Pastrnak immediately releasing for a home run pass that can turn into a breakaway opportunity if the opponent is caught napping. Tampa Bay wasn’t caught unaware when the B’s tried it in the middle of the third period, but then Bergeron and Co. kept trying to make it happen.

They ended up icing the puck multiple times trying to make the goal happen in one quick play rather than working for the tying goal, and it killed any momentum they could have possibly started building up for a third period comeback. It also showed a fundamental lack of confidence that they could scratch and claw their way back in on Thursday night, and that’s a definite cause for concern at this time of year.

“At the end of the day, it is a focus, and it’s urgency, and it’s understanding time and score. We did not have a good comprehension of that tonight, I don’t think, and of late,” said Cassidy. “We’ve let games get away, and you can look back, even this year, we’ve had some goals scored against us late throughout the course of the year. It’s been built in this year, and we’re still fighting through it, to be perfectly honest.

“It’s a mindset that we’ve just got to get harder and understand the stakes, and what’s required after you score a goal. I think winning teams get through that, and we’re fighting through it this year. Some nights, we’ve been good at it. We’ve had resiliency, I think. It’s just, lately, it’s creeping in, and we’ve got to nip it in the bud now.”

It hasn’t been just the young players at the heart of this four-game losing streak, and the Tampa loss should have been a wakeup call that the Bruins veterans need to find a way to step up their focus, their effort level and their composure at this time of year. After their fourth loss in a row, the Bruins have frittered away whatever margin for error they once had with just eight games remaining in the regular season.

Their next wrong move will cause a nosedive straight out of the playoffs for the third year in a row, and that will spell changes far and wide on Causeway Street for the Boston Bruins.