Celtics

Calhoun takes UConn into N.I.T.

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Calhoun takes UConn into N.I.T.

By Mary Paoletti
CSNNE.com

The National Invitation Tournament doesn't have the postseason pomp and flair that Connecticut is used to. But the challenges Jim Calhoun's Huskies have faced this season will not end when they enter the 2010 NIT.

"With a quick glance at the bracket, it looks like the field is remarkably tough," the UConn coach said. "There are plenty of teams that were in position to make the NCAA tournament, and I think that with all of the parity in the field, it will be very difficult to win and advance."

Calhoun is talking about teams like Illinois, Arizona State, Virginia Tech and Mississippi State, all of which had a shot at an NCAA tourney berth last Sunday. Last season Illinois was a No. 5 seed in the field of 65 and ASU was a No. 6 that ventured on to the Sweet Sixteen. Other heavy hitters who fell from last year's grace are Mississippi State (No. 13 seed), Dayton (No. 11 seed, Sweet Sixteen), Memphis (No. 2 seed, Elite Eight) and the No. 1 seed and national champion, North Carolina.

This will be no cake walk for Connecticut.

Not much has been easy for the 17-15 Huskies. After reaching the Final Four in 2009, the team struggled to find a new identity this year. UConn at first gave credence to its preseason No. 12 national ranking by winning 11 of its first 13 games. But things began to unravel during the weeks that followed.

Against top-rated teams like Kentucky, Duke, Texas, West Virginia and Villanova, the Huskies showcased their speed and strength. They looked fluid on transition, strong in the paint, and dogged on defense. But they fell completely out of sync when facing lesser-feared foes like Providence, Cincinnati and South Florida. In these games UConn couldn't rebound, couldn't hang on to the ball, and couldn't even penetrate the perimeter when on offense -- much less execute a crisp play. It's as though a cancerous unpredictability is buried at the core of this team that won't allow any of the successes to flourish.

Consequently, Calhoun's postseason ambitions are modest.

"Our goal is to continue to play and give it our best," he said in a statement.

UConn's best will have to rise above its last few efforts if the team plans to seriously compete in this tough NIT field. It was those final four losses, beyond the season's other disappointments, that made up the minds of the NCAA Selection Committee. The last of them, a defeat by St. John's in the Big East tournament, put a line through Connecticut's name; the 73-51 scoring margin wiped it from the board completely. Hopes of returning to the Big Dance came to a bitter end.

At least it wasn't the end of the season.

UConn tips off against Northeastern Tuesday night at 7 p.m. Though college hoops fans around the country might not be anxiously watching with brackets clutched to their chests, the game is an important one for UConn. There are five seniors on the roster who want just one more chance to win. There are also five freshman who would benefit from logging minutes of postseason play in any tournament.

And their coach? He'll have to hurdle some nostalgia before getting down to business.

"Obviously, playing Northeastern has special meaning for me," Calhoun said. "Northeastern is a place that gave me a chance to be a head coach and a place where I have a lot of great memories."

A sincere sentiment, no doubt, but it's not one that will cloud the focus of a 33-year veteran. There is still plenty of work for Calhoun to do.

Acceptance of this new challenge -- to take this tournament one step at a time, to 'keep playing' -- might help shed some of the struggle between talent and unmet expectations that's burdened his team this year. UConn needs to leave that St. John's loss back in Madison Square Garden. The glamour wins over Texas, Villanova and West Virginia should all be forgotten too. The Huskies will miss the real madness of March and that fact should leave them humbled and hungry.

And they should hope, freer to fight.

Mary Paoletti is on Twitter at http:twitter.comMary_Paoletti

Celtics-Hawks preview: C' defense looks to keep up historic pace

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Celtics-Hawks preview: C' defense looks to keep up historic pace

As the wins continue to pile up for the Boston Celtics, so does the praise and adulation from others throughout the league. 

It’s a double-edged sword if you think about it. 

Acknowledging how good the Celtics are, is indeed a sign of respect. 

But it also means Boston plays every game with a large target on its back unlike any of Brad Stevens’ previous Celtics teams. 

And that means every game they play, even those like tonight’s matchup at Atlanta where they will be heavily favored, are dangerous matchups.

Because for some teams, the next best thing to competing against the champ (Golden State) is facing the team with the best record who just knocked off the champ. 

That will be one of the dynamics at work tonight when the Celtics (14-2) kick off a three-game road trip against a trio of sub-.500 teams beginning with the Hawks (3-12).

Boston has shown tremendous focus and attention to detail during their 14-game winning streak. But in that span, the Celtics have never had a trio of teams right behind each other that struggled as much as the Hawks, the Miami Heat and the Dallas Mavericks have this season. 

Not including games played on Friday, Boston’s next three opponents are a combined 11-33. 

All three of those teams would love to be the one to knock off the Celtics, the kind of victory that could significantly shift the direction of their respective franchises from their current downward spin. 

Meanwhile, the Celtics will look to continue to play with the kind of defensive temperament that has catapulted them to the top of the NBA’s defensive standings in several categories. 

“The way they’re beating teams it ain’t pretty,” a league executive texted NBC Sports Boston. “But they win. Last I checked, that’s what matters most.”

And that success has to a large degree, put a bigger bullseye on the Celtics than ever. 

“Now that we have a reputation, I think everyone is coming for us,” said Boston’s Jaylen Brown. “Now we have to come play even harder, and I think we can do that. I think we are more than capable.”

Especially if they continue to defend at a level we haven’t seen in years. 

Boston has a league-best defensive rating of 95.4. A key component in Boston’s strong play defensively has been their ability to win the battle of the boards. They come into tonight’s game with a .530 rebounding percentage which is second in the league to Portland (.539).

And that defense, while praised for how it functions collectively, it also consists of some pretty good individual defenders as well. 

Among guards averaging at least 20 minutes per game, Boston has four players ranked among the top 10 in defensive rating (Marcus Smart, 93.5 defensive rating, 2nd); Jaylen Brown (93.6, 3rd); Terry Rozier (95.0, 5th) and Kyrie Irving (96.4, 8th). 

When you look at forwards, Brown headlines a trio of forwards that includes himself, Al Horford (94.2, 3rd) and Jayson Tatum (96.1, 7th). 

Aron Baynes has the best defensive rating (90.6) among centers, followed by Horford (94.2).

“Our guys are locked in and really trying and again we can really play some pretty ugly basketball at times,” Stevens said. “But I do think that we are competing which is really good.”