NEW YORK (WFAN/AP) — Next to winning national championships in 1999 and 2004, Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun considers the Big East title he captured last week to be his third-biggest thrill.
If all goes as planned over the next few weeks, that conference crown will fall to No. 4 on his list of accomplishments.
Calhoun and the streaking Huskies (26-9) open NCAA tournament play Thursday against No. 14 seed Bucknell (25-8). Connecticut earned a No. 3 seed by winning five games — four against ranked teams — in five days to become Big East champs. It was an incredible run considering that the Huskies went 9-9 in the conference and had come in with three losses in four games.
“When I put it back in perspective, after the two national championships there’s nothing more special than to win that kind of fight in your neighborhood,” Calhoun said Wednesday. “It certainly is one of the highlights of my coaching career.”
His players won’t soon forget it, either.
“I don’t think there’s a day that’s gone by where I didn’t say, ‘Wow, we really won the Big East championship,’” tournament MVP Kemba Walker said. “It was definitely surprising. A lot of people don’t understand what we accomplished. So it’s a big deal.”
Connecticut has every right to be tired, but Calhoun eased up in practice this week and says his players have recovered sufficiently enough to keep on winning.
Bucknell expects to get Connecticut’s best shot.
“They’re not going to be tired or anything because we’re all like 20 years old,” Bison guard G.W. Boon said. “They will be ready to play.”
It won’t take long for Calhoun to realize if his team is ready or not, but he knows this game could be one of the most dangerous of the tournament for the Huskies.
“I always think the last game and the first game are the most difficult,” he said. “I think the first game is tough for a lot of people. Hopefully this team will stay in character.”
Bucknell, the Patriot League champion, hopes to duplicate the success of the 2005 team, which beat No. 3 seed Kansas as a 14th seed.
“The comparisons have been there pretty much the whole year,” Boon said. “I actually got a chance to talk to the star player from that team, Charles Reed, a few weeks ago and he told me that, ‘Yeah, you guys are getting compared to our team and everything, but this is your year. Make your own legacy.’”
That is the plan.
“If it wasn’t for that win, I could probably say I wouldn’t be here. They really put Bucknell on the map,” center Mike Muscala said. “But that was in the past. We’re here to make our own history.”
It’s already been quite a year for the Bison, who started 2-6 but have lost only twice after Nov. 29.
“I’ve never had a group that’s been more coachable, worked harder, been more resilient or focused every single day in practice,” coach Dave Paulsen said. “It’s been a fun ride, but we know we have a very, very tall order ahead of us.”
Bucknell won’t necessarily have to play its best game of the season, but it sure can’t afford to lapse into its pre-December mode.
“The reason we’ve been so good is we haven’t beaten ourselves,” Paulsen said. “We’ve played good, solid defense, made team take challenged shots. We haven’t turned the ball over, we’ve made our free throws.
“Those are the types of things that give you a chance to be successful. But against UConn that’s magnified times five.”
(TM and Copyright 2011 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)