Ask connecticut coach Jim Calhoun to identify his team's two biggest victories this season, and he'll tell you that neither counted toward his career total of 701. "It wasn't a win over Pittsburgh or Syracuse," he says. "It was seeing A.J. Price walk out of the hospital, then seeing Rashad Anderson do the same."
The No. 12 Huskies (21--6 overall, 13--3 in the Big East) have had to weather severe personnel losses in their quest to repeat as national champions. They had been prepared to lose Ben Gordon and 2003--04 national player of the year Emeka Okafor to the NBA and alltime assists leader Taliek Brown to graduation. But medical emergencies involving Price and Anderson came out of the blue. Price, a freshman guard, was hospitalized on Oct. 4 with a brain hemorrhage and was in critical condition for nearly three weeks. Four months later the Huskies also lost Anderson, a junior swingman (and their leading scorer at 13.8 points per game), when a skin abscess on his right thigh became so infected that his lungs constricted, his kidneys failed and his temperature spiked to 104°.
Going through two traumatic events so close together did more for team chemistry than Calhoun could have imagined. "At times it had a dysfunctional effect," he says, "but in the long run I think it really contributed to our growth."
The Huskies, undaunted by the fast starts of Boston College and Syracuse and by their own middling 4--3 mark early in Big East play, won their last nine league games to claim a share of the regular-season conference title with BC. The maturation of sophomore big man Charlie Villanueva and the sensational play of freshman forward Rudy Gay were key factors in UConn's late surge, but no player's emergence was more important than that of point guard Marcus Williams.
Though a sophomore, Williams had little experience running the Huskies' attack; he played only 16 games last year because of academic problems. Early this season Williams felt he was in over his head. "I really didn't know what [Calhoun] wanted," he says. "But after a while the job started to become routine." Now settled, Williams has become one of the country's top point guards. His average of 8.0 assists leads the nation, and twice this season he has had a school-record 16 dimes.
"We've known from the beginning that Marcus was going to be one of the greatest passers this university has ever seen," says sophomore forward Josh Boone, "but people fail to realize he's probably one of the best defensive guards in the conference too." Williams's ability to shut down his man has contributed mightily to a defense that ranks first in Division I in blocked shots and rebound margin and fifth in field goal defense. "Over the last part of the season," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim says, "[the Huskies] are playing as well as any of the top three or four teams in the country."
With their sidelined teammates' health slowly improving, the Huskies stand to get even better. Although Price, who is out of the hospital and back in class, won't rejoin the squad until next year, Anderson could return to the lineup in time for the NCAA tournament. Their life-and-death ordeals brought more than a mere sense of urgency to the defending champs. As Calhoun says, "It brought us together."
TWO COLOR PHOTOS
DAMIAN STROHMEYER (2)
Villanueva (3) and Williams (5) have ably filled some big shoes.