All week long, you’ve read articles written by homers to explain why their beloved college hoops team is going to win the 2011 NCAA championship. I’m going to go in a different direction. As an anti-homer (I believe I just coined that term), I’m going to explain why UConn will NOT repeat as champ this year. I wish I could base this assertion on some sabermetric-like analysis of their strengths and weaknesses. I wish I could tell you that I’ve studied game films and scouting reports, that I’ve measured verticals, and timed sprints, but I’ve done nothing of the sort. I’ve got something stronger on my side than statistics dislike. Pure, unadulterated dislike. Please know that I’m avoiding the word “hate” only because I reserve my hatred for truly important things: like Al-Qaeda and the Boston Red Sox.
My dislike for UConn basketball is really out of the ordinary for me. I was born and raised in Connecticut, and I’m generally a supporter of all things Connecticut-related. In college, I constantly annoyed my friends by identifying Connecticut-born celebrities and athletes when they would appear on our television screen. I was a huge fan of the Hartford Whalers, the only major league sports team that Connecticut has ever had or likely will ever have (sorry, I can’t count the Connecticut Sun), and I was even an owner of season tickets for the UConn football team. But when it comes to UConn basketball, I jump ship. Why? Let’s explore the reasons.
REASON NO. 1: THE BANDWAGON EFFECT
When I was in high school, my buddies and I had a ticket package for all of UConn’s Big East games. These tickets were not difficult to acquire, as UConn was the perennial laughingstock of the conference. Empty seats were in abundance. Now, following three championships and two decades of success, every Nutmegger (the nickname for Connecticut residents) walks around in UConn hats and jackets, even if they attended other colleges or no college at all. Tickets to any games (never mind Big East games) are impossible to get. Every game is broken down by my coworkers the next day like the Zapruder film. The outcome of the UConn game is often the lead story on the local news. “HUSKIES TOP HOYAS” is written in a headline font previously reserved for “JAPANESE BOMB PEARL HARBOR.” I realize that the state is starved for sports success, but the level of UConn saturation is more than anyone can handle. After their improbable run in the 1990 NCAA tournament, a book was produced, “UConn’s Dream Season: Road to the Final Eight”. A title so ridiculous that it should be listed in the comedy section of Barnes & Noble. No program that aspired to higher goals should ever have such a book written. Yet, here in Connecticut people lapped it up. Now that the Huskies have managed to finish higher than the top eight, things have gotten exponentially worse, and for a non-UConn grad like me, it’s way, way, way too much to take.
REASON NO. 2: JIM CALHOUN
I realize that every coach of a major college program is the emperor of his own fiefdom and to some degree treated like a demigod by his supporters and minions. But Jim Calhoun, being the biggest fish in a small pond (yes, I’m openly baiting Geno Auriemma), takes that level of arrogance and entitlement to new, loftier heights. Every press conference is an occasion for him to be snide and sarcastic with reporters who dare to ask an uncomfortable question. His dismissive attitude and condescension are legendary. One of the most famous incidents occurred when a local gadfly had the temerity to ask him at a press conference if he would be willing to take a cut in his multimillion-dollar salary in light of the state’s precarious financial position. In response, he snapped, “NOT A DIME BACK!” He didn’t say, “I feel badly for those suffering in this state, and I’d be willing to take a look at it” or “I’ve done well in my life, so I’ll share in the sacrifice asked of other state workers”. No, his answer was, “NOT A DIME BACK!” and upon being asked to clarify or explain his remarks, he chose to stand by them. Being Jim Calhoun in this state means he could get away with it, but it doesn’t mean I have to like it.
REASON NO. 3: ACADEMICS
The graduation rate for the UConn men’s basketball team in the most recent survey was 31 percent. It was one of only seven schools in the 2011 NCAA tournament to graduate fewer than 40 percent of its players. One of its recent graduates, superstar Kemba Walker, was allowed to graduate by taking several classes on the Internet and writing a paper about his internship with the NBA team that drafted him. (Note: The arrival of his diploma must be delayed by the NBA lockout.) Putting aside the ridiculousness of assuming that the ninth pick in the draft would be subjected to anything remotely resembling a normal corporate internship (“Kemba, Mr. Jordan is still waiting for those copies”), he also admitted that he had never read a book until his final year of college. And he will be counted as one of their graduates! At the commencement ceremony, he led the march of graduates! I’m not naïve enough to believe that major college athletics will ever be like the Ivy League or even my alma mater of Holy Cross, but even UConn partisans have to admit that 31 percent is ridiculously low and that to graduate college, one should have to read more than one book.
(Note: This may be the real source of my bitterness. Prior to 1999, I used to taunt my UConn friends with the fact that the only New England college to win an NCAA championship was Holy Cross: 1947 champs, Baby! Stupid, I know, and yet I’m still bitter. Even Bob Cousy has moved past this by now.)
REASON NO. 4: SHADINESS
Although Calhoun and UConn are not exactly Jerry Tarkanian and the Runnin’ Rebels in terms of NCAA violations and shady characters, they have had more than their fair share. From the marijuana arrest of point guard Khalid El-Amin following the 1999 championship to the laptops stolen by point guard Marcus Williams in 2005 to the illegal recruitment process of Nate Miles, UConn has had some bad-character guys and some outright NCAA violations. The recruitment of Miles was the biggest scandal in recent years, and by now the facts are well known: involvement with an agent with ties to the program, improper contacts, legal troubles. The Miles affair had the whole enchilada of NCAA no-no’s. In response, Calhoun alternately denied everything, feigned ignorance, blamed others, took full responsibility, issued a carefully crafted apology, and filed an appeal. My head is still spinning, and yet he somehow walked away scot-free with his iconic image still intact. Even the addition of the Huskies’ prized new recruit Andre Drummond (the heir apparent to Walker in the superstar department) has a funny smell to it. The announcement that he was going to attend UConn came so suddenly, and as such a surprise, that they didn’t even have a scholarship available for him. A backup player was made to give up his scholarship to accommodate Drummond. Coupled with Drummond’s appearance in a video hawking Adidas sneakers, there’s something that smells about the whole process. Maybe not violations per se, but definitely some shadiness. This is perhaps the price that has to be paid to be a player in major college athletics, but UConn fans can no longer pretend that they’re the paragon of virtue that they used to be.
So there you have it, Huskies fans. Sorry. Call it karma, call it schadenfreude, call it old-fashioned dislike, but according to my airtight analysis, I’m afraid that the UConn men’s basketball team will not be repeating as champ. There will be no parade in Hartford come April this year you know, unless the women’s team wins.
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