At 2 A.M. on Nov. 29, Connecticut sophomore point guard Khalid
El-Amin was lounging peacefully on the tan living room sofa of
his off-campus apartment when the phone started ringing. He had
just watched Cincinnati upset No. 1 Duke four time zones away in
Alaska, and the euphoria was spreading like a nor'easter through
Husky Nation. Over the next half hour El-Amin received seven
calls: congratulations from his parents, hoots and hollers from
his friends in Connecticut and back home in Minneapolis, and a
more serious talk with UConn teammate Richard (Rip) Hamilton.
"You see the game?" Hamilton asked.
"You know what it's time for, don't you?"
December 21, 1998
"Time to knuckle down and play some ball. We're Number 1 now, so
we'd better hold on to it."
El-Amin and Hamilton weren't aware of it, but history was
working against them. In 98 years of playing basketball, the
Huskies had been ranked No. 1 only once before, in 1995, and on
that occasion they suffered an embarrassing home court loss to
Villanova only four days later. So much for history. Through
Sunday, 8-0 UConn had beaten three Top 20 teams--including a
miraculous 70-69 win at then No. 20 Pittsburgh last Saturday,
and border rival UMass--since taking over the top spot, and
wild-eyed Connecticut fans were thinking that maybe, maybe this
will be the Huskies' year after a decade of NCAA Tournament
misery (chart, page 79).
There's reason for hope in Hopeville, Conn., and in Bridgeport
and Hartford and everywhere else in the basketball-loopy state
that coach Jim Calhoun calls "a mini Kentucky." All five
starters returned to Storrs from last year's 32-5 Elite Eight
team, including lead Huskies El-Amin and Hamilton, two of the
finest perimeter players in the country. El-Amin is a yapping,
trapping, energy-sapping whirlwind whose light-footed moves make
one overlook the fact that his body is shaped like a shot put.
Listed at 5'10" and a Gingrich-conservative 203 pounds, he has
heard all the insults, such as "doughboy," a name frequently
shouted at him last year. That was nothing, though, compared to
the wise guy at Virginia who approached him during warmups
carrying a Domino's pizza box and asked if he was hungry. "That
was pretty funny," says El-Amin, "but we won, so I got the last
Hamilton, for his part, is a dazzlingly efficient scorer.
Equally adept at working off screens for his shot or slashing to
the hole, the 6'6", 185-pound junior swingman is averaging 18.8
points a game. "He has a rare combination of shooting touch and
a feel for the game," says Calhoun, who responds to pro scouts'
criticisms of Hamilton's frail stature by comparing him in size
and style with the late Reggie Lewis, whom Calhoun coached at
Yet while Hamilton is one of a handful of favorites to win the
national player of the year award, he remains largely unknown.
At Connecticut he shares the spotlight with El-Amin. Even at
Coatesville (Pa.) High, Hamilton was overshadowed by his friend
and rival Kobe Bryant, from nearby Lower Merion, a suburb of
Philadelphia. It wasn't just that Bryant's Lower Merion High
beat Coatesville all three times that the two players went
head-to-head. Bryant was the star when the two played together
on a Philadelphia-area AAU team in the summer of '95. "Everyone
watched Kobe," says Sam Rines, the team's coach. "Most of the
time they would come down on the break, and Richard would be
throwing Kobe an alley-oop pass." Says Hamilton's high school
coach, Jim Smith, "Kobe got all the notoriety, so when people
saw what Richard could do, they were always saying, Where did
this kid Hamilton come from?"
Then when Hamilton announced he was going to Connecticut, the
only video camera at the press conference was his dad's; when
Kobe announced he was turning pro, Philly TV stations carried
the press conference live. When their senior proms came around,
Rip squired Courtney Joseph, a star from Coatesville's state
champion girls' team; Kobe's date was the singer-actress Brandy.
Even last year, while Rip was becoming only the third sophomore
ever to win Big East player of the year honors--John Bagley of
BC and Chris Mullin of St. John's were the others--Kobe was
starting in the NBA All-Star Game.
Coatesville is a steel-mill town of 11,000 residents where
Hamilton developed what borders on a Beaver Cleaver sensibility.
Talk to him for a while, and the expression "gee whiz" will
tumble out of his mouth frequently. "Rip's a lot more of a '70s
kid than a '90s kid," says Calhoun. "He's naive but in a
positive way. The team was at a drug awareness program not long
ago, and Rip was saying, 'There's no drugs in Coatesville.'
Well, it's 35 miles from Philly, so of course there are drugs in
Coatesville. But in his mind, since he and his friends didn't
get into drugs, there weren't any. He's oblivious to any
negativity around him, and it's the same way on the court. He
doesn't get discouraged when he isn't playing well."
Hamilton was similarly insulated in a basketball sense. He
didn't play on the big sneaker-company-sponsored summer circuit
until the summer before his senior year. Till then he had been
content to limit his play to the school team and games at the
park on Ash Road near the house where his father, also named
Richard (Big Rip to his son's Little Rip), lived separately from
him and his mother, Pam Long. "I thought I was the best
ninth-grader in the world because I had never seen any other
ninth-graders play," says Hamilton. "Things didn't change until
my junior year when I started playing against guys like Kobe."
Finally he decided to test himself against the best by attending
the Adidas-run ABCD camp in Teaneck, N.J. He surprised everyone
by making the all-star team, thus establishing himself as one of
the top recruits in the nation.
Hamilton nearly left UConn for the NBA after last season, and he
couldn't help but question his decision not to after he broke
his right foot in July while trying out for the USA Basketball
team that subbed for the locked-out NBA players at the world
championships in Athens. "I had a lot of doubts when it first
happened," he says. "Am I ever going to play again? Will it
really take two or three months to heal?"
Sidelined between July and late October, Hamilton convalesced
over the summer in Coatesville, where he would pop videotapes of
his high school and college games into a VCR, turn down the
volume and look for ways to improve his play. There were
certainly enough tapes to watch, for Big Rip's home has been a
veritable Blockbuster store ever since Little Rip played his
first game in the seventh grade. After marveling at his son's
exploits that day, Big Rip went right out and bought a
camcorder. "I've got every game he's ever played, from junior
high to high school to AAU games and college," says Big Rip, who
keeps more than 300 tapes arranged chronologically in a closet.
Beyond pointing a camera, Big Rip also taught Little Rip his
first basketball lesson. "Basketball is played from the
shoulders up," he said to his son, a sixth-grader at the time.
"When you go on the court, you impose your will on somebody
else's will, and whoever's will breaks first usually loses."
UConn followed Big Rip's philosophy in last week's hard-earned
59-54 victory at UMass and especially in the thriller at Pitt,
in which the Huskies, who trailed 69-65 with 11 seconds to play,
scored the last five points to win. After Connecticut guard
Albert Mouring hit a three-pointer to get the Huskies within
one, forward Kevin Freeman tracked down the Panthers' errant
inbounds pass and helped get the ball to El-Amin, who calmly
traipsed into the lane for the decisive five-footer. Doughboy
celebrated by climbing the scorer's table and pointing to his
jersey and ample stomach, a brave move considering that fans at
Fitzgerald Field House were busy throwing projectiles at the
UConn players. One of the objects, a bottle, left guard Ricky
Moore with a bloody lip.
It was the only hit taken all week by Moore, whom Calhoun calls
his best defensive player in 27 years of coaching. Although he
didn't take a shot in 35 minutes against UMass, Moore helped
hold Minutemen guard Monty Mack to 10 points--less than half his
average. Against Pitt, Moore harassed Panthers point guard
Vonteego Cummings (who came in averaging 18.2) into 2-for-18
The most surprising aspect of the two games was the continued
offensive punch of UConn's role players. Neither Hamilton nor
El-Amin reached his season scoring average last week, but the
slack was taken up by Mouring (23 points off the bench in the
two games) and the inside combination of center Jake Voskuhl (10
points, 12 rebounds against Pitt) and Freeman (nine points,
seven rebounds against UMass). "The most encouraging thing is we
have a chance to be a lot better. Rip and Khalid haven't been at
their best yet," Calhoun said after the game against Pitt. "I
knew coming in that this four-game stretch was going to be one
of our biggest tests. Playing three ranked teams [Washington,
Michigan State and Pitt] and our border rival is a great
It's only December, but the atmosphere in Storrs is already a
lot like March. Before the Huskies' most recent home game,
against Michigan State on Dec. 5, 200 students pitched tents
outside Gampel Pavilion to get tickets that went on sale the
morning of the game. Fortified by hot chocolate and 50 pizzas,
courtesy of Calhoun (and by god knows what from more nefarious
sources), a dozen of them mooned the Spartans when the players
arrived for practice the day before the game, and Michigan State
never quite recovered.
Still, Calhoun has learned not to get too excited only a month
into a season, not with a tradition of postseason futility that
is now worthy of being called a curse. Of the 10 winningest
teams of the 1990s, only the Huskies have failed to reach the
Final Four at least once during the decade. Examining their
history of near misses is a lot like gawking at a grisly car
accident. In the 1990 East Regional final, Duke's Christian
Laettner sank a miraculous shot at the buzzer to beat UConn by
one. In the Sweet 16 in '94, the Huskies fell to Florida in
overtime after their star forward, Donyell Marshall, missed two
free throws at the end of regulation that could have won the
game. The frustration in the Elite Eight resumed in '95, when
Connecticut lost in a 102-96 shootout to eventual champion UCLA,
and continued last season when North Carolina ended the Huskies'
school-record 32-win season.
"I've had two or three teams that I thought were good enough to
win the whole thing, but things happened along the way," says
Calhoun. "Christian Laettner made a shot that I thought was
impossible. Donyell Marshall had 266 foul shots in '94, and he
missed back-to-back shots twice all year. When UCLA won in '95,
we were the best team, no question, just as Kansas was the best
team two years ago and didn't win the title. I know this:
There's no secret formula."
That hasn't kept Calhoun from retaining the services this season
of a sports psychologist, Alan Goldberg, who has been working
with six of the Huskies on "confidence building and learning how
to deal with distractions," says Calhoun. "We need to be focused
not on doing what other people expect us to do, but what we
expect us to do." With 19 newspapers covering the program, UConn
basketball--the men and the No. 1-rated women--holds the state's
rapt attention. Small wonder that the Huskies' shrink made a
house call at the team's hotel before the UMass game.
Calhoun is quick to say that he doesn't consider this squad his
best--that honor falls to the '93-94 Huskies, with Marshall, Ray
Allen, Travis Knight and Doron Sheffer--though left unsaid is
that when the best teams don't win, somebody else has to. "For a
select 15 schools, unless you get to the Final Four, it's not
going to be a good season, and I'm glad we've climbed the ladder
to be in that position," says Calhoun. "But I'm like our fans.
I'm greedy for a national championship."
Connecticut is among the 10 winningest teams of the 1990s.
Appropriately, with the exceptions of 1996-97, when the Huskies
went 18-15, and 1992-93, when they went 15-13, the team has been
ranked among the regular-season Top 10 in the weekly AP poll at
least once each year. Despite this success, the Huskies have
never made it to the Final Four.
SEASON WEEKS IN TOP 10 HIGHEST RANK NCAA RESULT
1998-99 4 1 ?
1997-98 11 6 Elite Eight
1995-96 18 3 Sweet 16
1994-95 15 1 Elite Eight
1993-94 9 2 Sweet 16
1991-92 9 5 Second round
1990-91 1 9 Sweet 16
1989-90 6 4 Elite Eight
"For a select 15 schools, unless you get to the Final Four, it's
not a good season," says Calhoun. "I'm glad to be in that