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The Life


March 4, 2002
Beasts of the East
ESPN The Magazine

STORRS, Conn. -- The problem may be that the Big East has simply surrendered to those winds of change which have recently plagued most every other icon in the territory. Put out to pasture -- like Rudy Giuliani. Gone underground -- like Dick Cheney. Even bent on a midlife switching of networks -- like David Letterman. Or perhaps the league has merely lost relevance, shrunk in esteem and faded into the shadows formed by the hot pink spotlight of -- ugh! -- women?

Where have you gone, Patrick Ewing? Louie Carnesecca? Allen Iverson? Well, deep out here in the New England countryside -- and across the global media landscape -- those heroes have turned into Sue Bird, Swin Cash and Diana Taurasi, the familiar distaff darlings whoíve helped the Husky womenís team to what seem like 5,000 wins and a couple dozen national championships since the last time the conference's men got any attention.

Thatís an exaggeration, of course, inasmuch as the Huskies, male division, won their own NCAA title as recently as 1999. But even then Jim Calhounís guys spent much of the season under the radar of another juggernaut from Duke -- until nipping the Blue Devils smack at the end. But subsequently Connecticut disappeared once more into factorless finishes -- such as losing last year in the NIT, mercifully, to Detroit Mercy.

Which leads us to this March when the Big East, in general, and Connecticut, in particular, has performed, pub-wise at least, in some sort of weird vacuum. While Pittsburgh has been the surprise of the league -- picked to finish next-to-last in the Big East "West", the Panthers won the division and have finally nudged themselves into the Top-10 rankings -- Connecticut, the "East" champ, has been practically forgotten.

"Weíre young, but weíve gotten better and better," Calhoun said on Saturday after his team came from behind to defeat Seton Hall, 90-78, in their regular season windup. "I wouldnít be afraid to put us up against anybody down the road."

He means down not only those winding farm roads heading out of Storrs but that Nantzforsaken "Road to the Final Four" as well. Except for those born and bred hoop mega-nuts in the Nutmeg State, however, itís doubtful folks anywhere else could identify the Big Eastís best all-around player as well as itís top shot blocker, not to mention the nationís second-best field goal defensive team, as residing right here in town. But Caron Butler, the Huskiesí 6'7", 235-pound forward, has rapidly approached the Ray Allen-Richard Hamilton level in his sophomore year while the Nigerian Alphabet Boy, 6'9", 240-pound rookie center Chukwuemeka Noubuisi Okafor (25 characters, but only 15 different letters if youíre counting at home), familiarly known as "Emeka", has rejected an astounding 119 shots, 70 in Big East games, one short of Alonzo Mourningís freshman record. Thatís primarily why UConn has permitted opponents barely 37 percent shooting per game, second nationally to Cincinnati.

Despite being hounded by a media pack whose sheer numbers rival the press pound investigating Enron, Connecticut has also surreptitiously managed to win 21 games (Calhounís 17th squad with 20-plus), play two potential No. 1 seeds close (Maryland and Oklahoma), beat Arizona at Arizona and earn an all-important RPI of 11. Thatís 11 -- which should translate to a No. 3 seed unless the Huskies run the table at the Big East Tournament in New York, which might lift them even higher.

As an appetizer to that feast, the UConn-Seton Hall contest was not only tinged with a bit of revenge but served as a microcosm of the Huskiesí entire season. It was these very Pirates -- Darius Lane draining the late-second three -- who knocked Connecticut off the proverbial bubble in last seasonís regular season finale at the Meadowlands. And it was Lane along with the Hallís other snipers who rained 14 total trifectas on the home team Saturday before Connecticut shook off some sluggishness and, with Johnnie Selvie (Stop the presses! A senior playing on Senior Night) scoring a season-high 21 points, rallied from a nine-point deficit.

Selvie -- "my typical Flint (Mich.) playground kid," says Calhoun of his onetime national junior college player of the year -- was sure to point out that it was "Johnnie Time" after he took over inside and the Huskies bothered to ultimately guard the Hall outside, holding the losers to one basket in their last 10 tries. That was long after Connecticut opened the game by going scoreless in the first three minutes, during which time Calhoun called a timeout but was so incensed he never got off his own bench to talk to his own team.

This was a mirror of Connecticutís season low point, when the team was blasted at home on Dec. 28 by none other than St. Bonaventure, 88-70 -- you might imagine New Year's Eve was pleasant at the Calhouns. Following that the Hoseskies, uh, Huskies, were pretty much written off by pundits and pollsters alike. About a month later, however, UConn came from six points behind in overtime to upset Arizona in Tucson in one of the circus events of the year, 100-98. (Okafor, who is from Houston, Texas and was coached on a summer league team by Arizona assistant coach Josh Pastner -- Josh: You still have a job? -- blocked nine Arizona shots!) "A defining moment," says Calhoun. "The kids had the self-belief they could play with anybody in America."

After that boner against St. Bona, in fact, UConn has lost but four times -- three of them by a single basket.

And so, likewise, on Saturday ...

Seton Hall led by 10 points in the first half and by nine (62-53) with 11:42 to go in the game. This was after Calhoun, this time eschewing the silent treatment, screamed long enough to earn a technical foul from referee Reggie Greenwood, which the Pirates cashed in on with five straight free throws. But then the home team turned on the jets, caught up and pulled away. "You try to rebound with them, keep them out of transition," said SH coach Louie Orr. "But they wear you down."

"Weíve been waiting for two years -- for us, thatís a long time -- to win another championship," said Calhoun, who might have had to wait to get his heart out of his throat. It seems Butler (15 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists) -- an exquisite, versatile talent who dictated play much of the evening, here leading the break, there power rebounding, everywhere not only defending but dunking over everybody -- was celebrating the clincher by jumping over the courtside tables and mosh-pitting himself into Section 204 where he was mobbed by his fellow undergrads who were chanting "One More Year."

"I was lost in the moment," said Butler, who is that chanting good -- a 10-year all-star pro-in-short-waiting. "Calhoun said to show them (the fans) how much we appreciate them."

And, yeah, he called the coach "Calhoun" -- unlike their daily office meetings when Butler shows up impromptu merely to talk about life with the man he sometimes calls "The Colonel" or "The General."

The 21-year old Butler knows from discipline, having matured drastically from a street punk who ran with the toughest gangs in Racine, Wisconsin. At 15 he was arrested and charged with possession of a pistol and cocaine on school grounds. Subsequently, his entire gang ended up in correctional facilities -- Butler spending 15 months there, including 15 days in solitary confinement for fighting. "I didnít start playing ball until I got locked up," he says -- crediting his development and growth to "eating healthy and drinking a lot of milk."

After his release Butler became the dominant high school player in the state -- in an AAU all-star game he outplayed the likes of Quentin Richardson, Corey Maggette, Darius Miles and Tyson Chandler, now all budding pro stars -- and then left Wisconsin for Maine Central Institute (MCI) to hone his skills and qualify for college. Along the way heís become the father of two children as well.

"Caronís been through a lot of stuff and come out of it as one of the nicest kids weíve ever had here," Calhoun says. As well as one of the most aware. Unlike a lot of young stars, Butler understands his schoolís past and heritage and the legacy heís been chosen to continue. "He understands what the (championship) banners are all about," says Calhoun. "Heís always asking where Ray (Allen) and Richard (Hamilton) were at his stage. Heís cognizant of history, has a great feel for the game and the players on both sides. Success to Caron is not points and rebounds but winning."

Which, if Butler does remain in Storrs another few weeks as well as one more year, Connecticut will continue to do a lot of. "Iíve told the kids all season that if we can put it together at the end and get on a run ...," says Calhoun, "in the tournament there just arenít that many teams out there that anybody should be scared of."

Coincidentally, the hunkered-down, hidden-all-season Huskies may just turn out to be one of them.

Curry Kirkpatrick is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at curry.kirkpatrick@espnmag.com.



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