As I walk into old friend Cask ‘N Flagon across the street from Fenway, I’m greeted by a sea of multicolored jerseys representing colleges from all over the country: Harvard, Duke, Wisconsin, Wichita State (go Wheatshockers!), New Mexico, Northeastern (not sure about that one), Ohio State.
And Connecticut. So, so many UConn shirts. Blue and gray everywhere. Must be time for March Madness.
Michael Nichols, entertainment law professor at Bay State College and head of the Boston chapter of the UConn Alumni Association, grabs a seat at the bar next to me, and we settle in for what hopefully is another title run from the 2011 NCAA champions.
Only problem: these new Huskies just aren’t as good as last year’s.
“I miss Kemba,” a UConn 2010 alumnus moans, referring to Kemba Walker, who basically carried the Huskies to 11 consecutive postseason wins last year (actually 10 – UConn’s defense really deserved the credit for their final victory). Her two friends quickly echo the sentiment, and when asked how this team compares to last, one just says, “it doesn’t.”
But c’mon: this is UConn, we’re talking about! The most successful basketball program of the last 15 years! A school with such great basketball coaches that no two alumni can agree on whether men’s coach Jim Calhoun (three titles since 1999) or women’s coach Geno Auriemma (seven since 1995) is superior. They all pick Auriemma in a fight, however, because as Brendon Leary (UConn ’08) says, “Calhoun is like on his deathbed.”
Surely even a weak UConn team should still be able to handle the ninth-seed Iowa State Cyclones, right? Nope. And don’t call me Shirley.
With a name like Shabazz Napier, I hope after graduation he pursues a career as headmaster of Hogwarts. Wizarding, after all, is one of the only careers cooler than pro basketball player.
“The rat tail that he was rocking for like the first two, three games of the season, that was one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen in my life,” says Jack Kennedy, UConn ’10. He’s got a point, though later research determines it was honoring a “fallen friend.”
Back to the game… it’s bad. That 5-4 lead I mentioned? It’s literally the last time UConn leads the entire game. The Cyclones out-hustle, out-shoot, and out-rebound the Huskies throughout the first half, building a lead as big as 36-14.
“I watch a lot of basketball,” Nichols said. “It’s been a long time since anyone came back from 22 down in the NCAA tournament.”
The Huskies, meanwhile, employ a unique defensive strategy: let the Cyclones shoot a bunch of threes, then hope the Mayan calendar was off by six months and the world ends before the Huskies lose horribly.
It doesn’t work
(like every other doomsday prophecy).
The Huskies do start pulling themselves out of the 22-point deficit late in the first, with Napier and uber-shooter Jeremy Lamb combining for 14 of the Huskies’ final 18 points of the half. They head into the lockers down 42-32. Surmountable, but no one seems confident.
“Lamb has to own this game,” Nichols says. “He’s the best player. He has to own this game.”
Anyone, basketball fan or not, should get that a 22-point deficit is really, really difficult to overcome. It takes virtually perfect offense and excellent defense, and even then the other team’s shooting probably has to go cold. And this has to happen for virtually the entire rest of the game.
UConn plays very good offense, but not perfect: they give away seven points in missed free throws alone. And they play good defense, but not excellent: they allow the Cyclones 11 offensive rebounds.
But the Huskies can’t sustain their level of play forever. They pull within eight, and the Cyclones push their lead back to 15. They cut the lead to 58-52, but the Cyclones score the next seven. The Huskies can’t muster a third push.
As the reality of UConn’s imminent demise becomes clear, the fans become angry, bitter, negative. A guy near me alternates between cursing loudly and silently covering his face with his hands. Then he does it again. And again. And again.
The problem Huskies fans have is the same one Patriots, Red Sox, Lakers and Yankees fans have: they’ve won too much. They’ve set their expectations so high that almost nothing satisfies anymore.
“Elite Eight, Sweet Sixteen is expected each year,” Nichols says, and that’s a tall task. It means if UConn isn’t better than over three-quarters of the Div. I schools in the country (or at least those in the tournament), they’re a bad team. And the fans react to a “bad team” with disgust.
“This is embarrassing,” a guy says as he sneaks up behind me. “This is embarrassing for UConn alumni, and most of all UConn basketball alumni.”
“Ben Gordon, Emeka Okafor, Caron Butler, Rip Hamilton, Ray Allen, Donyell Marshall, never would have let this happen. Never would have looked like this.”
What makes UConn’s 77-64 loss extra sad is that, if the Boston alumni group is any indication, they have great fans. I watched the several hundred fans at Cask ‘n Flagon live and die with every single play of Thursday’s game. They cheered for scores, they cheered for rebounds, they cheered for drawn offensive fouls. They’re incredibly knowledgeable fans who know all the different ways momentum can swing in a basketball game, and they put everything into those moments when such a swing might be happening.
I have no sympathy for fair-weather sports fans. The euphoria of winning can’t come without the misery of losing, and those unwilling to risk the latter for the former are a waste of time and ticket sales.
But UConn’s Boston fans are absolutely willing to risk pain for joy. And it bums me out the risk doesn’t pay off, even if it has many times before.
Still, I wanted this 52 Games Overtime to be about a non-local school with great local alumni, and I’m positive I found it. Nichols tells me 18,000 alumni live in Massachusetts, and approximately two-thirds live in the greater Boston area. Gatherings – which also include charity events, lectures, and Celtics games when former Huskies come to town – can get as big as 500 or so, and the 100+ who showed up Thursday packed the area right around the bar.
Beyond alumni, UConn has several other connections to Boston. It recruits heavily from Massachusetts, and coach Calhoun both hails from Braintree and used to coach at Northeastern (so that’s why that guy wore that jersey!).
“I actually think UConn is Boston’s Division I team,” Nichols says. “BC fans would have gone home by now.”
I won’t go that far, but it’s clear those Bostonians who do choose UConn as their team of choice have plenty of company.
A BU women’s lacrosse game wasn’t enough for sports-but Matt Goisman this week, so a second 52 Games column had to happen before withdrawal set in. He caught up with UConn in 52 Games Overtime, and check back next Monday for a look at Harvard’s brief journey in the NCAA Tournament! Keep up with Goisman here.