After Cincinnati blew out Connecticut on Feb. 13 at Hartford's XL Center, UConn's fifth loss in six games, coach Jim Calhoun told his players they had embarrassed themselves.
The next day at practice the Huskies feared they'd be punished with two hours of running. Instead, Calhoun reiterated some UConn hallmarks—hustling for long rebounds, diving for loose balls and playing aggressive defense on the shooter—then led a crisp practice. "It was a confidence builder," says Calhoun, who missed seven midseason games for medical reasons, which contributed to the team's slide. Playing at No. 3 Villanova a night later, sophomore point guard Kemba Walker scored 29 points, and the Huskies pulled off the 84--75 upset. With that win and the two that followed (over Rutgers and No. 8 West Virginia), the apparently NIT-bound Huskies were 17--12 at week's end and making a strong case to get their 17th NCAA bid in the past 21 years.
But the tournament hopes of two other perennial powers remain dire. The last time UConn, UCLA (43 appearances) and North Carolina (41) all missed the tournament in the same season was 1966.
Defending champion UNC lost six of its top eight players after last season, and its talented but inexperienced roster that includes seven McDonald's All-Americans has played the worst defense in the ACC (72.7 points per game) and hasn't protected the ball (15.6 turnovers per game). At week's end the Tar Heels were in a last-place tie in the ACC with a 4--10 record, including a 15-point home loss to rebuilding Virginia, after which coach Roy Williams asked a reporter, "How can you go any lower?" His team responded by losing six of its next seven. To add injury to insult, UNC's second- leading scorer, sophomore forward Ed Davis, suffered a broken wrist against Duke on Feb. 10 and will not play again this year.
UCLA, which reached three straight Final Fours beginning in 2006, was 13--15 through Sunday and is threatening to put up the program's third losing season in 52 years. The Bruins are emblematic of the disappointing Pac-10, which has not had a ranked team for seven consecutive weeks.
UConn, UNC and UCLA have been hit hard by players leaving early, with a combined 14 players jumping to the pros before their senior seasons since April 2006. "It's very hard to plan for the future when you don't know what the present holds," says UCLA coach Ben Howland, noting he wouldn't shy away from recruiting a player who's likely to leave after one season.
UConn's late-season resurgence has been led by Walker, another player who has NBA-level talent. (He's projected to be a first-round pick in 2011.) Over a recent four-game span, the 6'1" Bronx native raised his average from 13.4 to 23.5 in boosting Connecticut's NCAA chances.
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Photograph by LOU CAPOZZOLA
ON POINT The explosive Walker has led the Huskies' dramatic turnaround over the last month.