Friend of the blog and fellow blogger Aaron Torres has written a book about the 2010-2011 national champion Connecticut Huskies basketball team. Aaron's a Connecticut native and lifelong fan as well as a very talented young writer. His book is well worth the time if you're a college basketball fan. Below is a quick question and answer session with Aaron about the book "The Unlikeliest Champion" as well as information for where you can order it.
1. What made you care about this particular Connecticut team enough to devote the energy to writing a book about it? Was it just because of the success or was there a personal angle as well?
"Care" is the exact right word. This book couldn't have had less to do with the success of the team, and more to do with the team itself.
The truth is, that I speak for most UConn fans when I say that about 18 months or so ago (before the start of the 2010-2011) season, there were a lot of people who were down on the program. Not angry or upset, just those who truly thought that the best days were behind it. The season before, a senior-led team fell flat on its face, and missed the NCAA Tournament all together, in large part because of the perception that Jim Calhoun "lost" the team. Calhoun himself was dealing with his own health problems, and because of it, recruiting suffered. You wouldn't believe how many big name guys started looking other directions, simply because of the perception of the program. In a lot of cases, UConn ended up with their second or third recruiting choices because of it (including current starting point guard Shabazz Napier
). Again, it was just a tough time to be a fan.
Then, the season starts, this team absolutely bursts out of nowhere...and incredibly, improbably, they go on to what I consider to be literally the most unexpected run to a title in college basketball history (more on that coming in the next question).
But really, back to the original question; it wasn't so much about the championship itself, but the "ride" to get there, if you will. It was watching a team day-in and day-out in 2010 that just didn't seem to care at all, then watching in 2011 how everyone played for the name on the front of the jersey instead of the name on the back. It was about watching a team whose only concern seemed to be winning games, rather than putting up stats. It was about watching a bunch of unheralded recruits take shape, mature in front of our eyes, and prove the doubters wrong. The 2011 UConn Huskies were the type of team that you one day hope to root for, but rarely get the chance to.
As I've said before, there are a lot of teams in college basketball history that were better than UConn. Many. But just because a team wins a title doesn't make them a great story. For example, is there anything worth reading about North Carolina 2009 title run? They began the year No. 1, obliterated everyone and won the title game by 15 points. They were a great team, not necessarily a great story.
And really, above all, that's what this UConn team was: A great story.
2. The title "The Unlikeliest Champion" might confuse some since UConn probably had the nation's best player on the team. What about last year's UConn team made them so unlikely as a champion to you that you chose that title?
That's a common question I've gotten, and one which I don't think is entirely fair. Through the prism of hindsight, sure it's easy to say that UConn won the toughest conference in college basketball, entered the tournament as a Top 15 team, and had arguably college basketball's best player. How unlikely could their championship have been?
The short answer? Damn unlikely.
It's easy to forget now, but UConn had no expectations coming into last year. Zero. Everyone remembers that they were picked to finish 10th in the Big East in the preseason, but how about this: Did you know that they did not receive a single vote in either preseason poll? How can a championship season start more unlikely than that? It's quite literally impossible.
People also remember the five wins in five days at the Big East Tournament. What they also forget is that the whole reason UConn had to play five games at Madison Square Garden is because they lost four of their final five regular season games. Eight teams got a first round bye at the 2011 Big East Tournament, and incredibly UConn wasn't one of them.
Then, there was Kemba Walker
. As you mentioned, within two weeks of the beginning of the season, he had become a National Player of the Year favorite. But two weeks before the season? It was hardly a slam dunk. Hell, I talked to Jay Bilas for the book, and he told me that when he saw Kemba play over the summer, he didn't think he was any better or worse than Butler's Shelvin Mack. Considering there are few higher authorities on college basketball than Jay Bilas, I'll take his word on that.
Simply put, I challenge anyone to really look back at this team, look back at where it was in the preseason, and argue that this wasn't the unlikeliest champion in recent college basketball history.
3. As you watched that team last year, at what point did it begin to occur to you that this was a special team so special that you'd want to capture its story in writing?
Sometimes as fans, we're the last one to know our team is onto something, and I certainly fall into that category. In the interest of full disclosure I will admit that even after watching UConn win the Big East title, it didn't even cross my mind that they'd go on to win a National Championship. Go ahead and look at the crappy bracket I filled out last year, I had them losing in the Sweet 16 to San Diego State. So much for knowing a lot about sports, huh?
Anyway, it was after that San Diego State game that I really thought, "Man, we might be onto something here." At that point the bracket really opened up, and when the team got to the Final Four, I thought why can't this team win the title?
As for the book in specific, it really dawned on me on the flight home from the Final Four. I was sitting there, and started putting the puzzle pieces together, and realized "Wow, this really was a special season." I had written a lot of articles for my own website (www.aarontorres-sports.com
) about the team, and when I got home, I started seriously thinking about it.
And when I started doing research, and realized truly how far the team had come, it became a no-brainer.
4. Just as a fan and not a budding writer, what was your single favorite moment of the 2010-2011 season? Outside of actually winning the national title, of course.
I will tell you the truth and say that as a fan, I can unequivocally say that my favorite part of the season (maybe even more so than winning the title) was the Maui Invitational Championship Game against Kentucky.
To go back to the first question, I cannot fully describe how bottomed-out the program was coming into the season, and how "un-fun" (for lack of a better word) watching the 2010 team was. It was miserable. It was the first time in my life as a UConn fan that I wanted the season to be over before it actually was.
So to go to Maui, and win the way the team did...it was like 18 months of frustration came off my shoulders as a fan that night. I honestly had no visions of grandeur about a National Championship at that point, but it wasn't really about that. It was about having a fun team to root for again, after all the misery of 2010. It wasn't about championships; it was about being able to actually enjoy sitting down and watching my team, something I had actually dreaded the previous year.
I still remember sitting at home that night (the Wednesday evening before Thanksgiving) and watching that game with a huge smile for my face for 40 minutes. I was speechless and \overcome with emotion. That win was as satisfying as virtually any I can ever remember. Even when I went to bed, I could barely sleep and woke up the next morning at like 5:30 a.m. and wrote an article about the game, on Thanksgiving morning (an article which was in the book by the way). Nobody asked me to do it, and because of the holiday I knew no one would read it. And you know what? I didn't care. That article was for me. I had all this energy, all this excitement, and had no other way to express it.
That night in Maui was one of my favorite moments as a sports fan.
5. Without giving too much of the book away, what's something about last year's UConn team that the average fan wouldn't know that they can learn in your book?
Oh man, so many good ones.
One nugget that has become folklore at UConn now, is that during his recruitment, Kemba Walker wasn't actually UConn's first choice at the point guard position. Believe it or not, one of the greatest players in UConn history, was actually a back-up plan.
At the time they were going hard after Brandon Jennings, who had a cousin that had played at UConn, and UConn really thought he was their point guard of the future. Only after he waffled did UConn go hard after Kemba. I had the opportunity to talk to the assistant who recruited Kemba (Tom Moore, now head coach at Quinnipiac) and he told me that Kemba's high school and AAU coaches were basically selling UConn on Kemba, not the other way around. Funny how history works out, huh?