Friday March 20th, 2009

The game was a model of normalcy. Sixteen seeds do not beat No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament, and the reasons for this were on full display in Connecticut's 103-47 destruction of Chattanooga late Thursday afternoon at the Wachovia Center. What transpired in the hours before -- and minutes afterward -- was not close to normal, except in the sense that Connecticut has been in this very odd place far more often than most basketball teams.

They played without their coach, except that he had readied them, a point that was forcibly made in the aftermath. As Connecticut advanced to Saturday's second-round game against Texas A&M, Jim Calhoun was at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, undergoing tests while feeling unwell enough that he and the team's physician, Dr. Jeff Anderson, felt he should not coach his team. According to UConn officials, Calhoun was to remain in the hospital overnight and be re-evaluated Friday morning. It is uncertain if Calhoun will return to the UConn bench for practice Friday or for Saturday's game.

What is much more certain is that either his absence or his presence will serve as a significant emotional force for his players, as they attempt to advance through the tournament. What it means to Calhoun's future is far more cloudy and will surely be speculated upon until he returns -- and probably after that, as well.

On Thursday, the news of Calhoun's absence was delivered at 11:30 a.m. as assistant coach George Blaney rode from the team hotel to the arena. Anderson called UConn associate athletic director Tim Tolokan and told him "Tell coach Blaney he's going to be coaching the team.''

Word spread unevenly in the ensuing hour. CBS broadcast the information during the Texas A&M-Brigham Young game and senior guard Craig Austrie heard it there, along with a few other teammates who were watching the game at the arena. Blaney personally told senior point guard A.J. Price, who texted teammate Jeff Adrien. Eventually, they all gathered and heard it from Blaney in a more formal way before the game.

This would be the 21st time since late 1990 that Calhoun, 66, has missed all or part of a game due to illness. Five of those followed prostate cancer treatment in 2003. The cause was often an upset stomach or dehydration, although neither of those has yet been identified as the cause on this occasion. Including Thursday, six of those incidents have occurred since the current UConn seniors were freshmen. "Being that we've been in this situation before, we know how to handle it,'' Price said after the game. "We handle it in a professional manner. And we made it a point of emphasis to win the game and win the game in good fashion.'' Poor Chattanooga paid for that even more heavily than the Mocs might have.

When it was formally finished, UConn players filed into the locker room. A speakerphone was propped up near the dry erase board and Calhoun talked to the team. He commended them for their win. Price gave him a game rundown. Junior center Hasheem Thabeet said to Calhoun in his baritone: "Coach, I only had two blocks.''

Said Thabeet, "I was trying to get him to laugh, and he did laugh. So I hope we are going to have him back to practice [Friday].''

Adrien remembers another sound: "I could hear beeping in the background. So you could tell Coach Calhoun was in the hospital, with tubes or something. But I know coach is a strong man, he's been through stuff. I definitely know he will be back.''

Calhoun has, indeed, been through some stuff. More than most people. He is a two-time cancer survivor (prostate in '03 and two occurrences of skin cancer, the second in 2008). He is prone -- even more than most coaches -- to tying himself in knots over the demands of his job and its evaluation by others. On Thursday Calhoun's son, Jeff, said that his father had been feeling lousy since Selection Sunday, three days after his team's epic six-overtime loss to Syracuse in the Big East tournament. "I think it just caught up to him,'' said Jeff Calhoun. "He really wasn't feeling good for a few days.''

On Wednesday in Philadelphia, I talked for a short time with Calhoun before his formal press conference. We talked about his annual charity bike ride to raise money for cancer research and treatment. The ride starts in my hometown and covers territory I ride frequently. We talked about a mountainous hill that comes early in the ride and can discourage riders with many miles ahead. "I've tried to get them to change the route,'' Calhoun said. But he talked about the breathtaking late spring beauty that surrounds the ride when it enters south central Massachusetts.

And we talked about his team's ongoing adjustment to the absence of guard Jerome Dyson, injured in early February. "We're making progress, no question,'' said Calhoun. "One of the things is to remind them that they don't have to be perfect.''

A few minutes later, Calhoun went to the podium and slayed a roomful of journos with his usual combination of bombast, wit and defensiveness. Here's the point: He seemed just fine.

He also seemed fine Wednesday night when he was a member of UConn's traveling party of 43 people for dinner at the Capital Grille in downtown Philadelphia. He sat next to former UConn coach Dee Rowe and they regaled each other with stories from four decades ago.

In this way, Calhoun's toughness is almost mythic among those who know and follow him. He is a Boston Irishman and all that goes with it. He has run marathons. In the second round of the 2004 NCAA tournament, he left the bench during a victory over DePaul, took care of whatever business was required in the locker room and got off the deck to return for the finish. He also attended the press conference and famously blamed his illness on a bad sports drink.

Five years earlier, Calhoun had missed UConn's first-round NCAA game in Denver and remained in his hotel room with an intestinal virus. (It has not escaped UConn's vast followers that on both previous occasions when Calhoun missed NCAA games -- '99 and '04 -- the Huskies went on to the win the national title).

Yet it's much too soon to attach sports significance to Calhoun's sickness, whatever it may be. He is not a young man, and on this occasion he and his medical advisors seem to have chosen a conservative course of action. It cannot be said strongly enough that no information has been provided on Calhoun's condition, except that he said, in the postgame statement, "I am feeling much better,'' and that according to UConn, the hospital then listed his condition as good.

Blaney said only "I am assuming he will be back with us'' but did not speculate on when.

Price said he expected Calhoun back Saturday. Tolokan, one of Calhoun's closest friends, said likewise.

They are a team. They will practice Friday. They will play a game Saturday. As for the rest, they wait. Like they have waited before.

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