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Got Gordon? UConn does

SAN ANTONIO -- Jim Calhoun's talk came in early January, just as it had with Caron Butler two years ago.

He sat down Ben Gordon, his talented junior shooting guard, and told him to forget it. Forget the NBA Draft. Forget the millions of dollars. Forget the shiny new car to replace his boxy old Mercury that his teammates call "The Hearse."

Calhoun told Gordon, in a not-so-subtle way, that he hadn't played well enough to reach the league. To that point, Gordon had had an inconsistent season, mixing flashes of brilliance with ruts of inconsistency.

Calhoun's not-so-gentle prodding, combined with an injury to Emeka Okafor's back, prompted Gordon to finally take over.

"The moment that Emeka went down, Ben put the 'S' on his cape and he's been Superman for the last seven games," Calhoun said. "He's been absolutely terrific."

If Connecticut is to march through San Antonio this weekend and win its second NCAA title in six years, there are plenty of reasons why. For starters, the Huskies led the nation in rebounding (44.5), blocked shots (8.3) and team field goal percentage (36.8).

But it wasn't until Okafor got hurt and Gordon transformed into Superman that the Huskies truly became galvanized.

"We really gelled and bonded as a team," guard Rashad Anderson said. "We showed everyone that even though our best player is out we can still win games."

Over the last seven games, Gordon has averaged over 24 points a game. He hit a ridiculous jumper in the lane over three defenders to beat Pitt in the Big East tournament final. He scored 36 against Alabama in the Elite Eight. And, basically, he's become exactly what all the Connecticut coaches and players have said he could for the past two seasons.

"With his talent, I sometimes had discussions with him about deferring," Calhoun said. "He has taken over our team's leadership, our team's scoring."

Calhoun had a similar conversation with Butler during his sophomore season in 2001-02. Both players were having fine seasons by anyone's standards, but Calhoun is dead set on wringing every ounce of talent out of his players.

Butler responded to his talk with Calhoun by dominating the later part of that season and leading Connecticut to the Elite Eight, where they fell to eventual champion Maryland. Gordon has carried this team to the Final Four.

Each responded to Calhoun's pep talks with vigor.

"Jim is relentless in that pursuit," said assistant coach George Blaney, "to get you to be as good as you possibly can."

The Huskies ended last season in the Alamodome with a loss to Texas in the Elite Eight. Connecticut guard Denham Brown and Shamon Tooles were already on the bus when a team manager fetched them and brought them back into the locker room.

Calhoun gathered the team and told them that San Antonio was hosting the 2004 Final Four. Right there, amidst the palpable sadness of the losing locker room, Calhoun told his team to set its sights on San Antonio.

They've done that. Thanks to Gordon's emergence on an already loaded team, things should be a bit more upbeat in the locker room this season.

Pete Thamel is a freelance writer based in Boston and a frequent contributor to ESPN.com and ESPN Magazine. He can be reached at vpthamel@yahoo.com.