Last season’s UConn men’s basketball team had one of the craziest and rarest runs to an NCAA Championship that we’ve ever seen. 11 straight postseason wins eventually climaxed with a 53-46 win over Butler for the program’s third NCAA Championship. For such an incredible season, amazingly no one had covered the whole story: how they all got there, the expectations (or lack thereof) and the motivation. Until now.
Aaron Torres, a journalist and blogger whose work has been published in places like Sports Illustrated and the Hartford Courant, is the author of the only behind-the-scenes story of this classic Husky team. The book, The Unlikeliest Champion: The Incredible Story of the 2011 UConn Huskies and Their Run to the College Basketball National Championship, was recently released just before the holidays, and the Amazon.com best-seller features features interviews with top college basketball analysts, writers, fellow college basketball coaches, as well as friends and family of the team.
Torres, actually a graduate of UConn, spent time with just about anyone who’s someone around the UConn basketball program, and dug deep to find the back stories for all of the players, the team and how everyone came to find themselves a part of something special in Storrs. You can find more of Torres at AaronTorres-Sports.com as well as CrystalBallRun.com, and more about the book at uconnbook.com.
I spoke with Torres late last week about the promising new book. Here are the highlights:
Dime: Can you give a synopsis of the book?
Aaron Torres: “It really is, as far as I know, the most complete documentation of last year’s championship team. To tell the story of last year’s championship team, you really have to go back through the previous couple of years before that.
“UConn made it to the Final Four in 2009 and that was Kemba‘s freshman year. He was kind of a role player on that team. In 2010, the team was supposed to be very good. They started the year ranked in the top 15, had three senior starters and Kemba was coming into his own with the team. Pretty good expectations, and they just basically fell flat on their face. They finished 18-16, missing the NCAA Tournament completely. The book kind of picks up there. It starts with a little back story on Kemba, but really sets the scene for 2011 because to really understand the whole story of 2011 you have to go back to 2010.
“UConn came into 2010-2011 season unranked and that’s kind of the narrative that everyone knows. They were picked to finish 10th in the Big East and not only (that), but they didn’t receive a single vote in either preseason poll which is indicative of how far off this program was.”
What was the process of putting this book together?
“The idea for the book really started when I went to the Final Four last year in Houston. It was April of 2011 so it wasn’t that long ago. I was flying home. I had a quiet, tiring flight and I was reflecting back on the whole season, everything that happened and how off the radar this team had come. I got home, started thinking about what a great story this was and why a book should be written about this. Just because a team wins a championship doesn’t mean that a book should be written about them.
“I always had this idea in my head that this was a bigger story than just basketball.
“The writing of the actual book was probably the middle of April until the end of August and then after that it was about getting it to the editors, helping design the cover, tying up all the odds and ends. It was a crazy time because you think this book is done but there were a few loose ends that took a long time to get tied up. Jim Calhoun, he was making these non-committal marks about whether he was going to be coming back in the fall. Andre Drummond, who’s going to be a top-10 lottery pick whenever he comes out, he just showed up at the doorstep probably two days before class started, so there were all those loose ends that just kept popping up.”
Did coaching staff expect Kemba to blow up the way he did?
“No, I don’t think so. I think Kemba believed he would be capable of doing that. I talked to a lot of people who knew Kemba growing up, and there’s been different points in Kemba’s career where he’s faced the situation that he did last year at UConn where someone told him he’s too small, he wasn’t a pure point guard, couldn’t do this or that.
“At every stage of the game, he was told he couldn’t do something and then went out and did it. I talked to his high school coach, and all the way back in eighth grade, 10 years ago, he wanted to play at this prominent New York City High School called Rice High School which has since closed. They’ve had a lot of really good players there. He was told in eighth grade ‘You’re not good enough to play at Rice. Don’t go there.’ He ends up being a McDonald’s All-American. He was going through the recruiting process and his own AAU coach said, ‘You are not good enough to go to UConn.’ Kemba went to the gym and basically busted his butt until he worked out a scholarship offer from UConn. This was kind of a theme in Kemba’s early life and why I ultimately think he will be successful in the NBA.
“So I think Kemba certainly felt he was capable of everything he accomplished last year but I don’t think anybody else did though.
“Jim Calhoun is famous for saying they thought Kemba was going to be just a nice four-year college player. I even spoke with Jay Bilas for the book and he said he saw Kemba at a high school all-star camp (where college kids are counselors) probably in June of this past season. Jay Bilas said he was good, but Shelvin Mack of Butler was there and he was just as good as Kemba.”
Did you talk to anyone about how this UConn title team compares to the other ones they’ve had?
“One thing that I don’t think Jim Calhoun gets enough credit for, and this is kind of my opinion but wrapped in talking to a lot of other people that know him, is that he’s won three championships now and he’s done it in so many different ways.
“1999, the team was based around Rip Hamilton, obviously a really good wing player, and that was the narrative of Calhoun’s first 10-12 years at UConn: the wing players that he produced. Ray Allen, Rip Hamilton, Caron Butler, guys like that. His second title in 2004 was centered around Emeka Okafor, a national player of the year guy, a center. He was one of the few true centers and the offensive revolved around the post game. Then in 2011, it revolved around this do-it-all point guard in Kemba Walker.
“What’s kinda fun and what hasn’t really been reported on is that Calhoun has won titles playing different styles. Every coach has their trademark. Roy Williams is the fast break. John Calipari is the dribble-drive offense. What Calhoun doesn’t get enough credit for is his ability to adapt to what he does and how the offense runs to the personnel that he has. Historically, this was the most unexpected title run.”
Talk about all of the recruiting stories in the book.
“One of the reasons why I thought it would be interesting to write the book was we have this perception that a team wins a national championship, we just assume if it’s a UConn or a Duke or a Carolina that everybody was a high school All-American, that everybody was the best player in their class and goes on to future NBA superstardom. With UConn, most of the guys on their team really weren’t the school’s top priority.
“Kemba only ended up at UConn because they thought they had Brandon Jennings signed, sealed and delivered and he ended up not even playing college basketball at all. Shabazz Napier, UConn basically whiffed on four or five really prominent recruits, including Brandon Knight, who’s now in the NBA, Josh Selby, who’s now in the NBA, so Napier only ended up there because of that.
“Jeremy Lamb was a great story. He didn’t really play AAU ball until the summer before his senior year. We live in a world now where everybody knows the top sixth graders, and Jeremy Lamb was virtually an unknown player until right before his senior year of high school. So what I tried to do was mesh those stories into the bigger story of this team.
“This wasn’t a Duke team that had eight McDonald’s All-Americans or a Carolina team that had the No. 1 recruiting class. These were guys that really came together, rallied around that adversity of being underappreciated and under-recruited.
“I didn’t talk to Napier directly but I remember talking to one of his mentors from when he was younger and Shabazz said that when they played Kentucky in the Final Four last year, those guys on Kentucky were the guys that UConn wanted to give his scholarship to. Doron Lamb and Brandon Knight, those were the guys UConn wanted and Shabazz didn’t get a scholarship offer until late in the process.
“It all plays into the narrative of this unlikely championship, this unlikely cast of characters, group of guys that came together.”
What will people take away from the book?
“For a UConn fan, it was one of those seasons that you might remember most of the particulars now, in five or 10 years, you’re gonna want to remember all of the details of this team. Like any sport or team, there’s no guarantee it’ll ever happen again. The circumstances of this particular team, I can say pretty definitively we will never see again, to win five games in five days at the Big East Tournament and then to win the National Championship after that.
“This is the kind of a book you can open up once every few years and say ‘Oh I forgot about that thing that happened at the Big East Tournament.’ For a UConn fan, teams like that just don’t come along.
“Even if you’re not a fan of UConn, you can appreciate the idea of being the underdog, of having to win five games in five days at the Big East Tournament which had never been done before. These are all things that not only will UConn fans enjoy but I also think casual college basketball fans can too.”
What will you remember most about their title run last year?
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