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Insider

A murky future for Jim Calhoun's team

4/9/2012

Although Jim Calhoun is one year removed from his third NCAA championship, his Connecticut Huskies basketball program will enter this summer with as many unanswered questions as at any time since he took over in 1986.

The effects of recent NCAA recruiting sanctions, the ineligibility of next year's team in the NCAA tournament due to poor academic performance, the defection of players to the NBA and to transfer, and the Hall of Fame coach's future all will play a part in what lies ahead for Huskies basketball.

First of all, although Calhoun has given no indication that he will definitely return to coach, many close to him think he's too stubborn to walk away now. He's 69 years old and battling health issues, and his coaching legacy is essentially intact, but competition drives him. He could have left on top after the 2011 national championship but didn't. If he leaves now, he'll leave with a number of problems needing to be fixed.

The doubt about Calhoun's return, if he returns, will certainly be used against UConn on the recruiting trail. Although the Huskies have signed only one player for the 2012-13 season, the damage could be felt with the high school junior and sophomore classes as well. Perceived instability in a basketball program doesn't reassure top recruits.

If Calhoun elects not to return, replacing him from inside his coaching family or with a proven national coaching name will not be easy. He is one of those guys like John Calipari or Rick Pitino who wins by the force of his personality. He'd recruit, coach well and win if he coached even at Idaho State or at Alaska-Anchorage.

The next coach would inherit a rich legacy of basketball success at UConn under Calhoun, but Connecticut is a state bereft of great high school basketball talent, and the campus' location in Storrs is not Chapel Hill or even Columbus, Ohio. It is not a given that the high level of success achieved in the past 25 years will continue.

Speaking of talent, Calhoun is likely to lose two future NBA lottery selections in the next few days. Jeremy Lamb, a 6-foot-6 guard, is expected to announce his decision this week. Andre Drummond, a 6-10 freshman, will make a decision by Tuesday as well. He could use another season of tutoring under Calhoun, but Drummond's immense physical tools make him a lock for the top five if he declares for the draft.

Alex Oriakhi, a mainstay on the Huskies' title team two years ago, announced he was transferring. He will be eligible immediately as a senior next season at his next school because UConn will not participate in next March's NCAA tournament.

The trio of Lamb, Drummond and Oriakhi has been replaced by only one incoming recruit so far. I watched 6-3 scorer Omar Calhoun drop 26 points in an all-star game in New Orleans during the Final Four, and he knows how to put the ball in the basket. He will help immediately -- if he gets the ball often.

Returning in the backcourt for the Huskies are Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright. Both are extremely talented, small guards who put up solid numbers last season. While they looked at times like they weren't always on the same page, they played without their head coach eight times in Big East play. If their chemistry is good, the Huskies will have one of the best backcourts in the Big East next season. That will keep them in the hunt for a regular-season Big East title, but I wouldn't bet on UConn winning it.

Often, a man's greatest strength is also his greatest weakness. No one can deny that stubbornness has been a two-edged sword for Jim Calhoun. After the long and successful career he's had at UConn -- one that also has had its fair share of controversy -- that stubbornness is at a crossroads.

Calhoun has two more years left on his contract, and I predict he'll be at UConn to fulfill it. But getting the Huskies back to a championship level will be his biggest challenge in a couple of decades.