Destiny’s Children

With the regular season wrapped up and teams punching their tickets to the Big Dance, what better time to take a look back at some of the best and most entertaining college teams of the past few decades? Yesterday, we took a look at a Fab Five story from SLAM 52 (June ’01) written by long time contributor Alan Paul. Being that it’s March, and the Big East Tournament kicked off yesterday, it’s only right that we share a feature story about the ’98-’99 UConn Huskies from SLAM 29 (October ’98) written by another long time contributor, Michael Bradley. The ’99 Champions had a great cast of characters and clutch players, most notably Rip Hamilton and Khalid El-Amin. This year’s squad had an up and down regular season, but their best basketball may still be in front of them. March is when UConn’s stars shine brightest, and with Jeremy Lamb and Andre Drummond at the helm, the ’11-’12 Huskies are not to be slept on as the Big East Tourney rolls along. Enjoy this look back at a classic piece, and expect plenty more to come as the NCAA Tournament approaches.—Ed.

by Michael Bradley

With the big money on the line, and just about the entire Bushwood Country Club membership looking on, Danny Noonan lined up the putt that would finish off Judge Smails and Doctor Beeper with a resounding thumb of his nose. Surveying the landscape on the 18th green, where even his arch-enemy, D’Annunzio , stood firmly on his side, Noonan glanced at the judge, who summoned up one last dose of bile and hissed, “Well…we’re waiting.”

We all know what happens next. Noonan’s putt comes up a pube short, and if not for assistant greenskeeper Carl Spackler’s misguided pyrotechnic approach to gopher containment, would have held the lip forever. But it didn’t. The ball dropped in. The Judge panicked. The crowd went wild. And Al Czervik declared, “Hey, everybody, we’re all going to get laid!” Happy endings all around, except of course, for the Judge and the good Doctor, who were last seen fleeing Czervik’s burly enforcers, Moose and Rocco.

And so it is with the University of Connecticut. Now deeper than a philosophy lecture and strong enough to laugh at all those who say college basketball has no power teams anymore, the Huskies are on the cusp of greatness. A first-ever Final Four beckons. A possible national championship. Fame and fortune. A way to placate all those dinky papers that follow the team around as if it were the only worthwhile men’s sport in the state. Oops. Okay, so maybe UConn hoops is the alpha and omega of the Constitution State’s male sporting landscape. That’s all the more reason to have the expectations. Now that the beginning of a new season is closer than the end to the last, it’s time to repeat the Judge’s statement.

Well…we’re waiting. Waiting for the end to premature stops on the NCAA tournament line. Waiting for Jim Calhoun, who piles up wins (522 in 26 years) nearly as quick as he speaks, to learn the secret handshake of the Final Four fraternity. Waiting for he men to replicate the success of their female counterparts. Waiting. Waiting.

“The two best teams we had [the ’89-90 and ’94-95 editions] might have gotten there,” Calhoun says. “But [Duke forward Chistian Laettner] made that shot in ’90 and ended that team’s magical ride, and in ’95,  I thought there was only one team in the country that could beat us, and that UCLA. And we met up with them, the only team that could dance with us.

“A lot of it is matchups. Take this year’s West regionals. Rhode Island and Stanford played in the final, and we beat Rhode Island by 13 and Stanford by 20 during the regular season.”

While some might look at Calhoun’s explanation as the usual, excuse-ridden tract heard from other coaches who don’t bring strong teams to the tourney mecca, clearer heads would say that building the Big East Conference’s undisputed Team of the Decade and one of the nation’s newest, strongest powers ain’t too bad. That winning four times as many NCAA tourney games (16) as all your predecessors combined doesn’t stink. That posting three 30-win seasons is better than a sharp stick in the eye. The Final Four might not have been on the menu at this point, but it sure looks like it will be offered in ’98-99. So, belly on up, folks.

These here Huskies go about 11 deep, offer more lineup combinations than a lock factory and have some bonafide stud players.Check out the backcourt of silky junior Richard Hamilton and soph point Khalid El-Amin, he of the retro game and speed-limit-defying mouth. Look out for power forward Kevin Freeman, who came to his senses during the spring and decided to stick around Storrs for another couple years, instead of transferring to that other “U” school just up the road. Guard Ricky Moore is one of the nastiest defenders in the nation. And so on and so on. Just imagine what would have happened had highly-touted recruit Ajou Ajou Deng scored an extra 20 or so points on the damned SAT. Not only would he have given the Huskies their first all-name-team resident since Corny Thompson back in the ’70’s, but the talented forward could have provided a glimpse of the best ever at the school. And he would have been a backup, fighting for 15-20 minutes a game. This team is scary.

“Practice this year is going to be a war, and that’s just how Calhoun likes it,” says junior center Jake Voskuhl, the Texan with the mean low-post defense. “If a fight breaks out in practice, he loves it.”