And so now the onus falls directly where it should have been in the first place: on the Connecticut players.
The unexpected news that Jim Calhoun is taking a leave of absence due to back pain leaves the Huskies standing at a pivotal crossroads. A season of promise has become a season on the brink, done in by a UConn team that has teetered between disinterest and disharmony.
Calhoun has practically begged his players to take ownership of their season, to provide their own leadership instead of constantly looking to him to recharge them. Against Georgetown on Wednesday, he tinkered with the lineup, yanking Alex Oriakhi and Shabazz Napier in the hopes of regenerating life.
Instead, the Huskies dropped their fourth straight, tumbling from the one-time high of 12-1 to the NCAA tournament precipice of 14-7. Now Calhoun is gone, at least for the next two games, and who knows how long thereafter. George Blaney once again steps into the void, filling in for his longtime friend and boss.
This is not the first time Calhoun has missed time from illness. In 2003, he was sidelined by prostate surgery, and in 2004 he was forced out during the NCAA tournament -- not exactly when most coaches want to fly the coop. That team, by the way, went on to win a national title.
In 2006, UConn was 14-1 when Calhoun missed a game with dehydration, and in 2008 the Huskies were 10-3 when he missed two games with the same ailment. Two years ago, the Huskies stopped a three-game skid when Calhoun took his medical leave.
Now that he’s off the bench once again, the narrative will become about him. Understandably to an extent. He is a Hall of Fame coach with a history of health ailments that suggest his time on the sideline is, or perhaps should be, nearing an end.
But what happens next in UConn’s immediate future has nothing to do with Calhoun. What ails this team can’t be fixed on a whiteboard by any coach.
It’s not about talent. The Huskies have that in abundance. What’s missing is the joy and moxie that this underdog team rode to a national title a year ago. Where once there was Kemba Walker’s megawatt smile, even in the most dire of circumstances, now there are slumped shoulders and grimaces. It is more than Walker’s points UConn is missing; it’s his attitude and his leadership. The players he left behind have failed miserably in taking ownership of either.
No one said this season would be easy. Being the hunted certainly is more difficult than launching the surprise attack. Now the Huskies have played themselves back into the underdog role. The bandwagon was emptying even before Calhoun’s announcement. Now it’s as if someone has yelled "Fire" in Gampel Pavilion.
A season of promise is on the brink.
Whether Connecticut lands back on solid ground or slips over the edge is up to the Huskies.