HARTFORD, Conn. -- The Huskies played loose in their 69-46 win over Seton Hall on Saturday, but this latest health scare for Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun has left those close to him in and around the UConn program with a feeling of uncertainty.
Calhoun told his friends and assistant coaches that he wants to come back from his bout with spinal stenosis, but he will heed his doctor’s advice. He has no choice.
Associate head coach George Blaney said prior to the team's victory over Seton Hall that Calhoun told him he couldn’t get out of bed. He reached a breaking point on the flight home from Wednesday’s game against Georgetown when the discomfort, racing down his legs and feet, became intolerable.
A number of sources said Calhoun is going over several options, from merely rest to minor surgery to even a major invasive surgery. If Calhoun is advised to go through major surgery to correct the problem, he wouldn't be able to return before March. But that’s not the initial plan. Calhoun’s hope is to get back as soon as possible if he is cleared.
Members of the staff knew that he had been dealing with this back condition for months and there was at least one school of thought that Calhoun would have it taken care of during his three-game Big East suspension. But the pain had cooled a bit and he carried on coaching when he returned to the team on Jan. 7 in a loss at Rutgers.
The players were unaware that Calhoun was in such pain, even as late as Wednesday after the Georgetown loss.
“He sat in the front [of the plane] and looked at the film as he always does,’’ said UConn freshman guard Ryan Boatright, who led the Huskies with 19 points Saturday. “But then when he didn’t come to practice [Thursday], we thought he was just sick. We didn’t know it was his back.’’
“I was surprised,’’ UConn junior Alex Oriakhi said. “He never shows any weakness.’’
The uncertainty of Calhoun’s return has made this a period of great unknown for Connecticut basketball.
The Huskies desperately needed the win over the Pirates. The defending national champs were in a four-game tailspin and failed to show any kind of energy or leadership. But they got both from Boatright and Jeremy Lamb (17 points), and in the second half on the defensive end from Andre Drummond (7 blocks) and Oriakhi (10 points, 8 rebounds).
UConn was almost too guard-centric, though, and ignored the two post players until Boatright and Shabazz Napier created for them in the second half. Oriakhi did say the post players have to command and demand the ball more often.
Blaney said the energy he saw from the players -- especially after tinkering with the starting lineup by going with three guards in Napier, Lamb and Boatright -- changed the game.
But road games at Louisville (Monday) and Syracuse (Saturday) are on tap, so the Huskies aren't out of the woods yet.
“We lost sight of things sometimes,’’ Lamb said of the losing streak. “People were selfish, including myself. We had a team meeting and everything is better. We don’t have to be selfish. Everybody has to accept their roles. We did that.’’
But the Huskies may have to go ahead for the foreseeable future without Calhoun. When he was suspended for the first three games of Big East play by the NCAA, there was no uncertainty. The staff and players knew he would return.
That’s not the case now.
A number of sources close to Calhoun said Saturday that they thought he would retire after the Huskies’ magnificent run of 11 postseason wins, capped by the school’s third national championship. When Calhoun didn’t commit to leaving or staying, some thought he might retire in the fall.
But then Drummond decided to attend college instead of going for a post-grad year. His arrival changed the tone of this season. Suddenly, the Huskies were a national contender again.
But now Calhoun is out again. The Huskies found their energy and groove in the second half against the Pirates but it could be short-lived if they can’t defend and score in the halfcourt against the Cardinals. Winning at Syracuse would be a reach with or without Calhoun.
His absence is the latest in a litany of distractions for this team, which includes dealing with Boatright’s eligibility.
“I hope he takes some time to get better,’’ Lamb said. “He’ll be in our prayers, my prayers. This time we don’t know. We’ll try to finish it without him. We just have to play. Hopefully we’ll expect him back at some time.
“The first time our motto was we were playing for coach because it’s still his team. It’s his philosophy, but a different voice. But we just heard this [Friday], so I haven’t had as much time to think about it.’’
No one on the team really had time to process the news. And with practice Sunday morning and a turnaround game Monday at Louisville, no one has much time to digest it now either. This is Calhoun’s fight to get rid of debilitating pain, but it’s still his team and his program. And until he’s ready to leave, that won’t change one bit.