Thursday, September 13, 2012

Flashback: Calhoun's 1988 UCONN NIT Team

With Jim Calhoun announcing his retirement from the UCONN Huskies (just before the hammer comes down on the program - even harder than the lack of post season play would suggest), what better way to celebrate the Coach who brought three National Championships to central Connecticut in 12 years than to celebrate where it really all began.  That fateful season in 1987-88 where the Huskies started its post season 25 year run with an NIT Championship.

1987-88 was Jim Calhoun's second season at the helm, after several seasons as Northeastern head basketball coach.  The 1986-87 team was a disaster for Calhoun, as Dom Perno left the team in shambles.  There was no Corny Thompson helping this team.  Calhoun could only lead the Huskies to 9 wins all season.  Not really the way to set the stage from a championship the next season...

1987 began quietly enough.  As with every UCONN season under Calhoun's reign, the early season schedule in 1987-88 was filled with patsies and cream puffs.  The likes of Morgan State, Hartford (who gave UCONN a close game as it turns out), Yale and Central Connecticut, sandwiched two ignominious losses to Virginia and Villanova.  Nothing really special had started happening.  Even wins against Pepperdine and Princeton later in the season were nothing special.  The only thing that really stood out was the play of the team's two stars at the time Tate George and Clifford Robinson.

Despite big wins at Syracuse (which was ranked in the Top 10 at the time) and against Georgetown, the season was marked by fits and starts and the team could not manage to string more than a couple of wins in a row (and never cracked the AP Top 20).  In fact, as the season wore on, the Huskies could only manage a handful of wins in the Big East and ended the season in last place with a conference record of 4-12.  Despite a 20-14 season overall, the Huskies did not join Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Georgetown and Villanova in the Big Dance and instead was relegated to the little bastard championship tournament, the NIT.  The NIT also featured Boston College, who was second to last in the Big East and Ohio State that had finished its year off with a 20-13 season.

Connecticut would need to win 5 games in a row to win the NIT, even though it couldn't string more than two wins together more than once (and that 5 game streak was against the creampuffs above).  But wins against, West Virginia, Louisiana Tech and VCU brought UCONN to the brink of the NIT Championship.  The only thing standing in the way was the tough Boston College team that had split the season series with the Huskies.  Boston College was focused itself as it had defeated three strong teams to face Connecticut.  Undaunted, UCONN, led by Clifford Robinson and standourt guard Phil Gamble, the Huskies defeated the Eagles 73-67 to reach the Championship game.

The improbable win against Boston College then set up the interesting NIT Championship final with the Ohio State Buckeyes.  After defeating Colorado State, the Buckeyes were determined to bring the title home thmselves back to Columbus.  After trailing most of the game, UCONN behind Tate George and Phil Gamble, stormed back to beat Ohio State 72-67.  Phil Gamble is named the tournament MVP and Jim Calhoun is annointed the next up and coming star of the Big East to follow John Thompson, Lou Carnesecca and Rollie Massiminio.  Calhoun's ascension to the top of the Big East really began on this night at Madison Square Garden.

Which brings us back to today, 25 years later.  Calhoun has endured coaching challenges, players stealing computers, an iffy bar in downtown Hartford, broken bones, cancer and an academic scandal that has saddled the team going forward.  Despite all of this, Calhoun is a beloved figure in Connecticut and beyond.  And now he has retired with the legacy - beginning on that cold night in March - squarely in tact.  Good luck with your future, Mr. Calhoun.

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