A look back at the ’98-’99 National Champion UConn Huskies.
Calhoun may not be that bloodthirsty, but he can be one tough S.O.B. Late in the ’96-97 season, which ended in a third-place finish in the Nobody’s Interested Tournament, the Huskies dropped an ugly, 73-60 egg in the regular-season home finale to Seton Hall that so infuriated Calhoun that he called for a midnight, run-’til-you-retch practice, almost launching a player revolt. Voskuhl wanted to quit the team. Hamilton shudders when he thinks about it. And you know what? It worked. UConn pulled together, won five of six in the NIT and hit the ’97-98 season at full speed, winning 32 games, bombing the Big East and coming–yes, again–one game away from the Final Four after very nearly losing in the first round to Fairleigh Dickinson. Three games after that scare, the culprit was North Carolina, which had a little too much experience and savvy for the young Huskies, particularly down the stretch.
This year, however, it should be Connecticut that strokes its beard in the big games and lays down the lessons for the youngsters. UConn will hit the big shots. UConn will advance to the big stage . “We’ve grown a lot; we’ve matured,” Hamilton says. “Everybody has a good feeling for each other’s game, and we know our roles.”
Hamilton, who broke his foot in a July tryout for the USA ‘Nightmare’ Team, will be back at 100 percent for the season’s start. And when he does return, he’ll resume the role of star, but there is little doubt that El-Amin is the MC. From the minute he stepped onto campus, the guy’s mouth hasn’t stopped running. So when he says–with tongue super-glued to the inside of his cheek–that he doesn’t like to talk about himself, it’s time to cue the laugh track. Ask El-Amin about anything, and he could probably work the topic back to himself. The weather? He’d probably say “El-A-Nino.” Biology? “El-Amino acids.” African dictators? “Idi El-Amin.” You get the picture.
By the end of last season, El-Amin had emerged as the Huskies’ spokesman, probably because nobody else could get a word in.His round, bearded face creases easily with a smile, and his abundant self- confidence is perfect for a team that needs to believe the Final Four is inevitable. “We needed what he has,” Voskuhl admits. “He brought a personality to the table that was perfect for us. He’s a competitor. He’s tough. He’s fun to watch. It’s hard to get mad at him.”
For his teammates, at least. Opponents who encounter his non-stop trash talk probably would like to fill his mouth with liquid steel–as if that would stop him. He’d probably just sign junk. “When he’s on your team, though,” Voskuhl says, “you love him.” El-Amin, who scored 16.0 ppg and dished out 4.2 apg last year, never hesitated to take a big shot or fire up his teammates. But about, well, that physique. El-Amin not only looks like he has the sly game of a 40-year-old schoolyard ver, he appears to have his body, too.
Not true, scream his teammates and coaches. “If you see him take his shirt off, he’s not fat,” Voskuhl says. “He has a little six pack.” Calhoun agrees. “He only has nine percent body fat,” the coach says. “He’s like a little fullback in there.”
If El-Amin is the lead blocker, then Hamilton is the smooth tailback, who weaves through defenses by following his blockers–in this case the endless staggered screens set by Voskuhl and Freeman–and piles up the big numbers. He would have been a lottery pick had he decided to play in the NBA this year (if anybody plays in the NBA this year). But Hamilton looked at the big picture: another year of added weight, more chances to handle and create and some better outside shooting just might land him in the top five next time. Calhoun, who calls himself “protective” of the lithe (180 pound) 6-6 guard, reports that a knee to the thigh torpedoed Hamilton’s pre-season conditioning and hampered him for 10 weeks of last season. So, if 21.5 ppg is what Hamilton can do on one good leg, just watch out this year.
“It’s exciting to play with Rip,” El-Amin says. “His game speaks for itself. I do nothing but make him better.”