Connecticut has its sights set on making the NCAA Tournament’s Final Four and winning the national championship this season. Anything less, in the words of their players and coach, Jim Calhoun, and the season would be a huge disappointment.
But to reach their goals, the Huskies (32-2) must first go through Mississippi State (24-7) Friday night in the Southeast Regional semifinals at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky.
For Mississippi State coach Richard Williams and his players, a loss to UConn would be a bitter disappointment. But it would not put a damper on the entire season.
This MSU team has lived up to its lofty preseason expectations making it back to the Sweet 16, winning 24 games to tie a school record for victories in a season, and capturing its first SEC Tournament championship two weeks ago with an upset of No. 1-ranked Kentucky.
“We’ll be disappointed if we get beat Friday, but we’ve had a successful season,” MSU coach Richard Williams said. “… I’d hate for my players to think that it would be a disappointing season if they didn’t make the Final Four or win the national championship.”
Williams added: “Those can be ultimate goals for any team, but when a team has done what ours has, I would never try to imply to those players that they were not successful for not winning a certain championship or for not going to a certain level.
“I don’t think that’s what college athletics is intended to be about.”
UConn’s enjoyed success
UConn reached the Final 8 last season, losing to UCLA in Oakland two nights after the Bruins had knocked off MSU in a Sweet 16 opener. The Huskies have an impressive NCAA track record under Calhoun two Final 8s, three Sweet 16s.
But no Final Fours.
“I’m not in Jim’s (Calhoun) shoes,” Williams said. “I haven’t had the teams he’s had over the course of time. We don’t undergo the public scrutiny his team undergoes every day. So maybe they have a legitimate reason to feel like it’s a disappointment if they don’t do that.”
One coach whose team was eliminated over the weekend, Villanova’s Steve Lippas, said when interviewed after his team’s 68-64 second-round loss to Louisville that the entire season “was like a disappointment” to him.
Williams heard the comment and thought: “I would hate to feel that way. That has to be an awful feeling that it’s a disappointment not to make the Final Four. You could be disappointed for that moment, but to say the whole season was a disappointment.”
Williams’ disappointments came from individual games.
“I was extremely disappointed when Eric Washington hit that 3-pointer to beat us when Alabama beat us,” he said. “It was devastating when Arkansas-Little Rock threw in a lob at the buzzer to beat us. But you look at the season as a whole and you look at what your kids have done.”
And just think, in this tournament, 63 of the 64 teams end their successful seasons on a disappointing note.
Gene Phelps is sports editor for the Daily Journal.