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Connecticut returns to NCAA Tournament after up-and-down season

TAMPA — The Madness marched on without UConn last season.

"If you win, the band's playing around you," Huskies coach Jim Calhoun said. "If you lose, all of a sudden you hear in the distance the band marching up the street and leaving you behind."

For the 65-year-old Calhoun, the steady drumbeat of NCAA Tournament appearances ended last season when Connecticut missed the postseason the first time in 20 years.

Perhaps that's what made its selection as the fourth seed in the West Region so rewarding. UConn plays No.  13 seed San Diego at the St. Pete Times Forum on Friday.

Even for a crusty coach such as Calhoun, getting a young team to live up to the lofty standards of the program he built is its own reward. Only two Huskies players, Craig Austrie and Jeff Adrien, have played in the NCAA Tournament. Both were freshmen in 2005-06 when George Mason upset UConn in the Elite Eight.

"We've come a long way from where we were last year in a whole bunch of different ways," Calhoun said. "Now what we've got to do is not talk about how good we're going to play in the NCAA Tournament, but go out there and do it."

But frankly, it has been tough sledding for the Huskies lately.

UConn (24-8) is 3-3 over its past six games, including a loss to West Virginia in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament in which it was outworked on the floor and outrebounded.

Maybe it's the carnival ride that was the UConn season that has Calhoun's head spinning, but the Basketball Hall of Fame coach seems relieved to have returned to the tournament.

"I hear we're 3-3 (in the past six) but I look at it a little differently," Calhoun said. "If we can win 13 out of 16 every year at the end, we're going to be going to a lot of NCAA Tournaments and probably be winning a lot of games.

"I'm just really happy and proud of the kids. We, at times, have been a little erratic coming down the stretch here, but the NCAA committee feels like I do: This team can go pretty far."

It has already been quite a journey for Calhoun and the Huskies.

The team was ranked as high as 13th this season, but the turning point came in late January at Indiana.

Calhoun was forced to play the then-No.  7 Hoosiers with only nine scholarship players after Jerome Dyson and Doug Wiggins were suspended for being caught with alcohol by university police.

There was no needle pointing up for Calhoun in that situation, which was made worse when Dyson failed a university-imposed drug test, leading to his 30-day suspension.

An emotional Calhoun helped the Huskies defeat the Hoosiers in Bloomington 68-63 and redefined his ability to stare down improbable odds and win. It was the third of 10 consecutive victories that put UConn back in the national spotlight.

The Huskies also would like to re-trace the footprints they left in the sand in Tampa Bay. UConn won its first of two national titles under Calhoun in St. Petersburg in 1999.

"We've only got one opponent right now, 40 minutes and a weekend tournament to get to the next spot," Calhoun said. "And I think that next spot is a place we've been before. Pretty good memories."

And for UConn, more to be made.

"You grow up watching March Madness, this is the best time of year," guard A.J. Price said. "Stars can be made here, guys know that. We've got to be ready to play, and if we do what we have to do as a team, we can make history as well."

.fast facts

Men's regions

When: Friday and Sunday

Where: St. Pete Times Forum, Tampa

Tickets: Tickets are available at $208, including a service charge, for the six games or for $76 for a single session. For information, call (813) 301-6600 or go to sptimesforum.com/ncaa2008.

Practice times

The NCAA teams will hold practices open to the public for free today at the St. Pete Times Forum:

Noon-12:40 West. Kentucky

12:45-1:25 San Diego

1:30-2:10 Drake

2:15-2:55 Connecticut

4:25-5:05 Vanderbilt

5:10-5:50 Clemson

5:55-6:35 Siena

6:40-7:20 Villanova

Connecticut returns to NCAA Tournament after up-and-down season 03/19/08 [Last modified: Friday, March 21, 2008 11:00am]

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