Can Connecticut catch fire again?
NEW YORK - Jim Calhoun generally scoffs at any comparisons between this year's Connecticut team and the one that won the 2011 national championship.
"That was a better team,'' the UConn coach said rather succinctly.
Still, what West Virginia faces in its Big East tournament opener today looks remarkably like the same Connecticut bunch that caught fire a year ago, if not necessarily in personnel than in situation.
Last year UConn was the ninth seed in the Big East tournament, beat DePaul after failing to earn a bye and then went on to win 10 more games in a row to capture both the league and national titles.
On Tuesday the ninth-seeded Huskies (19-12) beat DePaul 81-67 after failing to earn a bye. The next step in the process would be a win over No. 8 seed West Virginia (19-12) in a second-round game at noon. The game at Madison Square Garden will be televised by ESPN.
As both Calhoun and his players are quick to point out, however, there are significant differences between the situations. The biggest is the absence of Kemba Walker, who didn't single-handedly lift Connecticut to last year's postseason run but had a huge hand in it, especially as the Big East tournament MVP.
But Jeremy Lamb is still around and the surprise hero of last year's NCAA run is warming up again. In Tuesday's win over DePaul, Lamb had 25 points, five rebounds and four assists.
Don't call him this year's Kemba Walker, though.
"Well, no, I'm not trying to be Kemba. Of course everybody wants to lead their team to championships, but I'm just trying to do what's best for this team,'' Lamb said. "The whole team knows we've got five great players. [Ryan] Boatright, Shabazz [Napier], Roscoe [Smith] are stepping up. We've also got great big men. So it's a great team effort.''
Connecticut beat West Virginia 64-57 in Hartford, Conn., back in early January in a game in which the Mountaineers led by 10 points with less than 11 to play. UConn answered a 13-2 WVU run with a 15-2 run of its own.
The Mountaineers still had a chance in the final seconds when Kevin Jones, with WVU down 60-57, missed a 3-pointer with just under 20 seconds to play. The ball appeared to go out of bounds off of UConn's Alex Oriakhi, but it was awarded to the Huskies.
At that point it seemed as if Connecticut was rounding into form and was 14-3. But UConn then lost nine of 12, more than half of those games with Calhoun away from the team with back problems.
Calhoun returned Saturday when the Huskies beat Pitt in the regular-season finale and, while loathe to compare this year to the run made last year, did admit he likes how the Huskies are playing.
"We had six bad minutes [in a loss at] Providence. Other than that, we've had control and played well,'' Calhoun said of the last six games of the regular season. "We have played better basketball and certainly could have come up with at least one more win, including Syracuse maybe two more wins.
"You can't afford the six minutes and we had it. But [after playing well of late] they should feel better about themselves and hopefully we'll feel better when we play West Virginia."
Winning, of course, breeds confidence, and with two wins in a row the Huskies have it, just as they did a year ago.
"Well, yeah, I guess you could say we get momentum,'' Lamb said. "We had a great win [against Pitt] and then coming into the Big East tournament just got another good win. Coach came back, so there's a lot of things that go into it. But yeah, I can say we're getting momentum, yeah.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.