- Associated Press - Friday, April 1, 2011

HOUSTON (AP) - A lei draped around his neck and the Pacific Ocean crashing behind, Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun sat on the dais at the Maui Invitational, joking that not only did not know what to expect from his team, he was still trying to learn their names.

Four months after that moment of self deprecation, the 68-year-old coach has hustled the young Huskies into the Final Four with a mix of guile, gut instincts and nimble string-pulling in what might be the best coaching job of his 25 seasons at UConn.

“He always seems to get it right,” said Kemba Walker, Calhoun’s star player and shoulder to lean on.

He certainly has this season.

Just a year ago, Calhoun was hearing calls for his job after a that-can’t-happen-here 18-16 season that kept UConn out of the NCAA tournament after reaching the Final Four the season before.

The Huskies and their grizzled coach went into this season without many expectations, the roster full of underclassmen picked to finish 10th in the Big East and left out of the preseason polls.

Connecticut (30-9) had its breakout moment in paradise, fighting past Wichita State, then-No. 2 Michigan State, eighth-ranked Kentucky and an earthquake to win the Maui Invitational.

The Huskies kept rolling for a while, hit a funk, then went on an almost-unthinkable run through the Big East tournament into the NCAAs, a nine-wins-in-19-days stretch that sent them to the Final Four for a rematch against the Wildcats on Saturday at Houston’s Reliant Stadium.

Walker has gotten a lot of the credit, lifting the Huskies, sometimes single-handedly, to a place few even in Storrs could have imagined.

Calhoun has been the wily puppet master, pulling a string here to give a player a spark, another there to get just the right matchups, even tugging on his star Walker to make sure he’s in the right frame of mind.

He’s tinkered with playing time, switched matchups based on his gut, sat back and watched.

Calhoun has pulled guard Shabazz Napier, sent him back out, pulled him again when he didn’t like what he saw, sent the freshman back out a third time and finally got what he wanted.

He gave Jeremy Lamb some hard, sit-on-the-bench lessons early in the season, and the freshman guard responded in March by hitting some of UConn’s biggest shots of the season.

Against Cincinnati in the third round of the NCAA tournament, Calhoun went looking for a spark and brought in sophomore forward Jamal Coombs-McDaniel just 14 seconds into the game. Coombs-McDaniel got 10 key points in 20 minutes to help lead the Huskies.

Calhoun also is willing to occasionally step back and let Walker be the one in charge, in part because he trusts Walker’s smarts and ability, but also to stoke his star player’s ego.

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