It happens that three of the Final Four this year — Wisconsin, Kentucky, and Connecticut — were teams that Maryland defeated on its way to the Final Four during the Championship run of 2002. The Connecticut game was the Terps most difficult game of the tournament and, in my view, one of the most fiercely contested, best played NCAA games ever.
The competitiveness of the game was a tribute to Connecticut’s great coach, Jim Calhoun. In December 2001, I saw Maryland defeat Calhoun’s young team pretty handily. But by March, the coach had them playing at close to a championship level.
Connecticut’s amazing rise from regional force in the Yankee conference to national superpower in the Big East is also a tribute to Calhoun. So, of course, are the three national championships.
Calhoun has retired and Connecticut is no longer part of the Big East. Last year, the Huskies were on NCAA probation due to poor team academic performance. But the Huskies rallied this season to make another Final Four. They did it in their usual way, with great guard play especially from Shabazz Napier.
Napier would certainly make my all-team great list if I were including current players. Having excluded Napier, my all-time Connecticut first team picks itself. After that it gets trickier:
Kemba Walker (2008-11)
In 2011, Walker did what Napier is trying to accomplish this year — lead the Huskies to a national championship as a scoring point guard. Averaging 23.8 points per game that season, Walker was named first-team All American, winner of the Cousy award as best point guard, and runner-up for national player of the year. He was also the NCAA Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
Ray Allen (1993-96)
A two-time All American, this phenomenal jump shooter averaged 23.4 points as a junior and 19.0 for his career. Allen is fourth on the Huskies all-time scoring list. He made 44.8 percent of his three point shots and holds the Connecticut record for three-pointers made in a season. Indeed, Allen is first on the NBA’s all-time three pointers nade list.
Richard “Rip” Hamilton (1996-99)
This two-time first team All-American and two-time Big East player of the year led Connecticut to its first national championship in 1999. During that tournament, he averaged 24.2 points per game and was the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four. He ranks second on the Huskies all-time scoring list.
Donyell Marshall (1991-94)
Disappointing as a pro, but fabulous in college. Marshall was Connecticut’s first All American. That year (1994) he averaged 25.1 points and 8.9 rebounds per game, to go with a .511 shooting percentage. A model of consistent excellence, Marshall scored 20 or more points in 23 consecutive games.
Emeka Okafor (2001-04)
This dominant center led the Huskies to their second national title. One of the best defensive centers the college game has ever seen, Okafor was an All American in his final two years with the Huskies. As a senior, he averaged 17.6 points, on .599 shooting, and 11.5 rebounds per game. Okafor is number one on the Huskies all time blocked shots list, and averaged 4.3 blocks per game for his career.
Khalid El Amin (1998-2000)
A former Minnesota Mr. Basketball, this tough-as-nails point guard was the heart of the Huskies 2000 national championship team. That season he averaged 16.0 points and 5.2 assists per game.
Ben Gordon (2001-04)
Averaged 18.5 points and 4.5 assists per game for the 2004 national championship team. Gordon’s career three-point shooting percentage was 42.3. Gordon was drafted third in that year’s NBA draft, right after Okafor.
Chris Smith (1988-92)
Jim Calhoun’s first big-time recruit, he is the Huskies all-time scoring leader and was a Wooden award nominee in his senior year. Smith is one of only two UConn players to score at least 500 points in three different season.
Corny Thompson (1978-82)
He led the Huskies in scoring in all four of his seasons at Storrs. For his career, he averaged 15.9 points and 8.9 rebounds per game.
Cliff Robinson (1985-89)
I thought Robinson was overrated as a pro (low rebound totals and mediocre shooting percentage), but he played in the league until age 40 so he obviously was doing something right. In any case, Robinson was a great college player. He’s on the Huskies top ten list in scoring and blocked shots.
Tate George (1986-90)
His amazing buzzer-beater in the 1990 tournament (as good as Christian Laettner’s the same year) sent UConn to Elite Eight. George ranks second on the Huskies all-time assist list. Last year, he was convicted of four counts of federal wire fraud in a Ponzi scheme that netted him $2 million.
Tony Hanson (1973-77)
As a senior, Hanson averaged 26.0 points and 10..5 rebounds per game. His shooting percentage was .523.
Caron Butler (2000-02)
He stayed at Storrs for only two seasons, but “Tough Juice” (as he was known during his pro years in Washington) made a big mark as a scorer and defensive stopper. In his sophomore year, he averaged 20.3 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 2.1 steals per game.
Art Quimby (1951-55)
UConn’s all-time leading rebounder, and the national leader his junior year, Quimby averaged 21.5 boards per game for his career. A Connecticut boy, he was set to play for Kentucky, the top program in the nation, but was scared away by the Wildcats point-shaving scandal and so stayed at home.
Toby Kimball (1962-65)
Kimball led the nation in rebounding as a senior. He averaged 18.4 points and 17.9 rebounds for his career and produced 38 consecutive double-doubles. He later played for the Boston Celtics, among other NBA teams, as an undersized power forward.
There are many other UConn stars worthy of mention. Two of them were baseball stars: Walt Dropo (20.7 points per game for the Huskies; 34 homers and 144 RBIs for the 1950 Red Sox) and Scott Burrell (a first round draft pick in two sports).
Many older Huskies fans will insist that I should have included Wes Bialosuknia. In the mid-1960s, he averaged 23.6 points a game and more than 20 in each of his seasons at Storrs.
The Huskies have also been graced with two Israeli players of note: Deron Schaffer, an outstanding point guard, and (before him) Nadav Henefeld who was on the receiving end of anti-semitic taunts from Alonzo Mourning.
Seven-footer Hasheem Thabeet also merits mention for his shoot blocking prowess, as does current UConn coach Kevin Ollie, a fine point guard for the Huskies.