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Kevin Duffy: At least one last time, UConn-Syracuse "a really big deal"

Updated 12:33 am, Thursday, February 14, 2013

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  • Connecticut's Ryan Boatright celebrates with students after an NCAA college basketball game win against Syracuse in Hartford, Conn., Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013. Connecticut won 66-58. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill) Photo: Jessica Hill, Associated Press / FR125654 AP

    Connecticut's Ryan Boatright celebrates with students after an NCAA college basketball game win against Syracuse in Hartford, Conn., Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013. Connecticut won 66-58. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

    Photo: Jessica Hill, Associated Press

 

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HARTFORD -- Jim Calhoun sat baseline beside his son, Jeff, stone-faced as minutes became seconds and the noise in the XL Center ramped up beyond customary UConn-Syracuse levels.

As Ryan Boatright dribbled out the clock, UConn about to claim a 66-58 upset in the finale of its most storied rivalry, Calhoun leaned toward his son's ear, the crowd drowning out any shot at regular conversation.

Hours prior, while driving from campus to his Pomfret home, Calhoun spoke by telephone of Syracuse, of a respect for coach Jim Boeheim that eventually grew into a friendship. A 70-year-old man still so fiery about the future paused to reflect on the past.

"It's been historic -- it really has," Calhoun said. "For us, (Syracuse) has been our No. 1 rival. It's very sad for all of us, and I've talked to Jimmy (Boeheim) about this before. It's going to be tough, but life goes on."

It's supposed to be tough for the Huskies, at least. The perception -- perhaps not the reality -- is that UConn and Syracuse are headed in opposite directions. The Orange bolted for the money of the ACC. It'll be cashing a cool $17.1 million paycheck from the league's TV deal starting next fall. If the Big East's reported TV contract is finalized, UConn will be depositing an annual $2 million in its piggybank. As prolific a recruiter as Kevin Ollie can potentially become, he'll have to sell Conference USA opponents while Boeheim -- or coach-in-waiting Mike Hopkins -- can pitch Duke, North Carolina, Pittsburgh and Louisville.

And Boeheim called it a "problem." Yes, playing in a conference that comprises more than one-fifth of the top 25 is a "problem."

"I feel bad about the whole thing," Boeheim said in Wednesday's press conference. "If we signed a football contract three years ago, we wouldn't have this problem. They didn't want it. They didn't do it."

The problem is that UConn and Syracuse may never play again. Boeheim could wax poetic on the history, but chose the route of "it's been talked about a million times in a million places."

"Your biggest rivalries are going to be the teams in your league," Boeheim said. "That's just the way it is."

That is indeed the reality, too harsh a truth for most Big East lifers.

On his drive home from campus Wednesday, Calhoun tapped into 26 years of Blue vs. Orange: "McNamara's shot to the six overtimes ... the wars -- recruiting, overtime, single games."

"As a matter of fact," Calhoun paused, "in my second year, Cliff Robinson made two free throws down one with no time on the clock to win the game."

Minutes later, Calhoun offered a solution to the problem: future cross-scheduling with the Orange, which would maintain the fan bases' most anticipated rivalry and boost a non-conference schedule that would need upgrading. He then injected some realism, suggesting that Boeheim might not load up in the non-league if the ACC eventually goes to 18 conference games.

Then he provided the optimism.

"I still think there's more (realignment) change coming," Calhoun said. "We have a year-plus before we start playing without those people, so we could be in a different situation and other schools could be in a different situation."

In his five months of retirement, Calhoun has been puzzled by the buzz -- or lackthereof -- he's felt from his baseline seat. He's said that every game used to feel "like an event," and nowadays that's not the case. Perhaps the unsold tickets -- the general decline in anticipation -- have contributed to what must be Calhoun's greatest post-retirement fear: That UConn and Syracuse are in fact headed in opposite directions, that a money-grabbing, football-crazy culture will be the most effective defense against Ollie's Huskies.

"We've got one of the best point guards in America, a great young coach and yet I don't feel the buzz I'd like to feel," Calhoun said before the game. "I know (Syracuse) is playing for first place, but we're actually playing for ... we still have a shot at first."

From his new seat, Calhoun witnessed UConn close within one game of first. The Mighty Orange -- their lottery picks, long-armed guards and legitimate national title hopes -- are 8-3 in the Big East. Postseason-less UConn, a paper-thin squad that sometimes positions the 6-foot-7 Niels Giffey at center, is 7-4.

On Wednesday, Calhoun witnessed Boatright hammer down two dunks, shoulders popped forward with a cocky "yeah, I did that" stare after the second. He witnessed Omar Calhoun put his hand to his right ear -- as if to check the crowd noise -- after a corner 3-pointer that put UConn up 55-48. He has witnessed a team power through dire circumstances to remain nationally relevant. He has witnessed a team discard perception and, at 17-6 with a win over No. 6 Syracuse, create reality.

As the clock on the Big East's most intense rivalry struck zero, Calhoun stood up -- still no smile -- and headed straight to the tunnel. He must have been the first guy in the locker room.

"UConn and Syracuse?" he said hours earlier. "It's a big deal, a really big deal."

kduffy@newstimes.com; @KevinRDuffy