Difficult season awaits UConn, Jim Calhoun

Hall of Fame and three-time national champion coach Jim Calhoun will face his toughest on-court challenge yet, trying to motivate UConn without the opportunity of playing in the postseason in 2013.

The NCAA officially informed the Huskies on Thursday that the latest appeal to be eligible for the 2013 postseason was denied based on a four-year period of Academic Progress Rate (APR) scores.

The Big East decided during the conference tournament to adopt a new policy that any school that isn’t eligible for postseason cannot participate in a conference tournament, regardless of sport.

Calhoun issued a statement through the school Thursday, admitting that the university and coaching staff should have done a better job academically with the team, and that implemented changes have had an effect.

He added, “We will continue to strive to maintain that success as we move forward.’’

Calhoun has two seasons remaining on his contract, and new athletic director Warde Manuel said Thursday during a conference call with the media that Calhoun has given him no indication he won’t go forward as the coach.

“Jim is our coach,’’ Manuel said. “Jim is committed to working to ensure the student-athletes do what they’re doing now -- to focus on academically being successful, and being successful on the court.’’

A number of sources close to Calhoun said he will not retire. Actually, this latest setback will likely embolden him even more to stay and get the Huskies through this hurdle, instead of him quitting on the program when it needs leadership most. Calhoun, who has survived two bouts of cancer, eight broken ribs and recent back surgery, is considered one of the toughest coaches in the country.

Calhoun returned from back surgery for the final regular-season game against Pitt on March 3 after missing eight games, then coached the Huskies in the Big East and NCAA tournament. Calhoun was suspended for three games to start Big East conference play as part of the penalties related to the recruitment of former student Nate Miles (not related to the APR issue).

The Huskies have already released junior forward Alex Oriakhi. He can play immediately somewhere else, because his former team is not allowed to play in the postseason in his final season of college. Kentucky, Duke, Florida, Missouri and North Carolina, among others, are interested in his services.

Manuel said no other player has asked for a release. Oriakhi is the only junior on the team.

The Huskies are awaiting NBA draft decisions from sophomore Jeremy Lamb and freshman Andre Drummond. Calhoun said two weeks ago that he would expect Lamb to leave if he were in the lottery, but wasn’t convinced Drummond would bolt after initial conversations with his family.

The Huskies have one star recruit coming in the fall in Omar Calhoun. They also return rotation players DeAndre Daniels, Enosch Wolf, Niels Giffey, Roscoe Smith and Michael Bradley, as well as a potential all-Big East backcourt of Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright.

Preparing to play a season without the ability to reach the postseason isn’t the norm, but it’s not unique.

Two seasons ago, USC found out in January that it was banned from the postseason, including the Pac-10 tournament.

“It will be a challenge,’’ said USC coach Kevin O’Neill of what Calhoun faces next season. “If anybody can do it, Jim can. He commands the respect to keep them up.’’

O’Neill said he was helped by having senior transfers in Mike Gerrity (Pepperdine) and Marcus Johnson (UConn), who still wanted to play because they had nothing else left on their eligibility clock.

O’Neill said he focused the Trojans on trying to win the Pac-10 regular-season title. Calhoun will likely focus on the Big East regular-season title.

“Our guys continued to play hard, and we were in the hunt until the last two weeks,’’ O’Neill said. “We were fortunate to have seniors. If it’s a younger team, it’s going to be really hard. [UConn] will have a whole year in advance, and you’ve got to motivate the guys to go to the weight room to work their a-- off every single day, and that will be difficult.’’

Manuel isn’t holding out hope for a change in the policy in time to save the 2013 ban.

The Huskies have argued that the NCAA should compute the APR based on the immediate four-year period. Instead, the NCAA started it in 2007-2011.

The men’s team had an APR of 978 in 2010-11, and according to UConn had a perfect APR score in the fall of 2011.

Manuel said he views the Huskies as being penalized twice since it already lost a scholarship due to the poor APR, received a public reprimand and a reduction of practice hours. Manuel said the board of directors changed the level two penalty on Oct. 26, 2011 to go from the above mentioned to include a postseason ban.

“We knew the initial penalty when we submitted our information, we knew the punishment, there was no new data,’’ Manuel told ESPN.com later Thursday of the expectation that the Huskies, in the fall, would receive the above mentioned penalties instead of a ban. “And then they changed the penalty.

“None of the freshmen on this team cost us a point,’’ Manuel said. “The players on this team helped us stay perfect. These freshmen weren’t on the team and their data won’t be calculated.’’

But Manuel said he has moved on and the Huskies must as well, to a season that will end with the last regular-season game.

The Huskies can still win a title in 2013. But just the Big East regular-season championship. That’s it. As a result, this will be Calhoun’s toughest task to date to ensure his depleted team is motivated enough to reach that goal.