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After sanctions and transfers, UConn's biggest worry is irrelevance

by | CBSSports.com Senior College Basketball Blogger
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Along with Shabazz Napier, Jim Calhoun will lean heavily on Ryan Boatright next year. (US Presswire)  
Along with Shabazz Napier, Jim Calhoun will lean heavily on Ryan Boatright next year. (US Presswire)  

It's hard to believe it's been less than 13 months since Jim Calhoun coached UConn to its third national title in 12 years.

That was some moment for the program, taking college basketball's crown and becoming one of the most unlikely champions in the history of the sport. As Calhoun and his pups stood on the podium after the game and watched One Shining Moment inside Reliant Stadium, they were all grinning and hugging like kids who got away with stealing every cookie from the jar.

Calhoun knew more than others. He knew he'd pulled off something even he couldn't have predicted (maybe even imagined), and by doing so, the Hall-of-Fame coach clicked Connecticut's prestige and reputation as a basketball boss up to another level. Calhoun's legacy was enhanced too, of course; he became the fifth major college basketball coach with at least three titles.

But the crazy thing about college sports -- the thing that makes it equal parts watchable and unpredictable -- is how fast the bread can go bad. You've seen how really good programs can swiftly spiral into part-time irrelevancy within a year or two.

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Sometimes it's NCAA sanctions; sometimes it's coaching turnover; sometimes it's repeated misfires in recruiting. With very few exceptions, nothing is guaranteed for college dons, even the illustrious ones with bloated budgets and phone book-thick histories and records. Just check with USC, which has been a college football miscreant most of the past three seasons.

The Huskies are the latest example of this. Look at it now: UConn is so far removed from that 2011 shining moment. It's not the same team and it's certainly not the same program.

A 2013 postseason ban has rendered next season obsolete, no matter what any player or coach wants to spin about it.

And here's the most recent bit of bad news: Roscoe Smith, a talented-but-inconsistent wing player who averaged 4.4 points per game, abruptly transferred from UConn over the weekend. In doing so, Smith became the fifth possible defect from the team since its 20-14 season ended with a 77-64 thud of a loss in the Round of 64 against No. 8 Iowa State.

Andre Drummond and Jeremy Lamb, both sure-fire lottery choices, obviously made the no-brainer decision to get the hell out. Alex Oriakhi, a valuable, misused big man last year, transferred to Missouri for his senior season. He won't have to sit due to UConn's postseason ban. The Husky-out number could be four instead of five depending on what redshirt freshman Michael Bradley does. UConn needs him.

It's praying Bradley, who has seriously flirted with the idea of leaving, changes his mind and turns heel back to Storrs. Does the optimism about UConn basketball next season really hinge on the decision of Michael Bradley?

Boy, if that's the case, UConn's got more problems now than most realize. If the name is causing a flicker in your brain and you don't know why, here's a link to light your bulb: Bradley was the player who got roped into the Andre Drummond scholarship issue last season.

He was a non-factor for UConn in 2011-12 as, again, he red-shirted. If he was worth anything, he wouldn't have been put on the pine for a year. Yet, if he's back, that's entirely good news for UConn -- a sigh of relief.

But here I've gone on and given two paragraphs about Bradley's decision and how it impacts the 2012-13 UConn campaign. The fact that his choice means so much tells you where the program is right now. The Huskies are downshifting. Things could stay slow and under the radar for a while, which reinforces the idea that we're moving pretty fast toward a new reality with UConn hoops. This uncertainty and perceived averageness could be the beginning of Connecticut's new existence. At guard, it will still be very talented — if no one else transfers from now until September. And that is no given.

Calhoun has to hope incoming stud Omar Calhoun isn't affected by the sanctions and cluster of jettisoning. If Calhoun keeps Calhoun, he'll join Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright in the backcourt, so long as those two stay on the ship.

The guards will be an entertaining but possibly erratic group. They're fast, trigger-happy and could turn Connecticut into Florida of the north. Remember the Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker Show from the past two years in Gainesville? The new iteration is likely coming to Storrs.

Because the guards will take the reins, that means the big men will not only lack offensive viability -- they'll be a liability. And when's the last time you could say that about a Calhoun team? UConn led the nation in blocks for the majority of the past decade. Now it will have Tyler Olander and Enosch Wolf attempting to thwart off threats in the paint and somehow play themselves into double-digit offensive efforts.

DeAndre Daniels is the other forward of impact, but he's not a big whatsoever, plus he quietly had one of the most disappointing seasons of any touted freshman last year.

As of now, the rest of UConn's nine-man roster fills up with tweener Niels Giffey and yet another guard in R.J. Evans, a senior transfer from Holy Cross -- a team with a better chance of making the NCAA tournament next year than UConn.

Publicly, Calhoun remains optimistic. He has to be. And all signs are that he's coming back to coach this team next year, which shouldn't surprise anyone. Calhoun wakes up every day hoping to prove everyone wrong. It seems perfectly clear he is going to ride out the two years left on his deal. But the decisions on UConn's future need to be made now.

New Connecticut athletic director Warde Manuel seems the perfect man to help ease this transition, but it's not going to be easy.

Phasing out the Calhoun era and transferring it to a new one will be one of the trickiest changings of the guard we've seen in college hoops since Dean Smith. And you saw how UNC dipped for six years after Smith left the program.

What is UConn without Jim Calhoun? Is it UNC without Smith? What we know is what we don't know: UConn was nothing before Calhoun got there. Is it a nationally viable program without him? Is it the man or the program?

Handcuffed by NCAA regulations next season, we're about to see what UConn is without the power, reliability and influence of Calhoun. It could get ugly and it could get unfamiliar. What's worse: it could get irrelevant. In a time of flux and degradation in the Big East, one of the league's best programs could mimic the curdling of the conference.

As much as he'd love to control it, even Calhoun can't completely inculcate what happens to UConn now. The glory days appear to be over at Connecticut, and it could be so far into the future before they return. Few things threaten programs like uncertainty. That's all UConn has now.

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