UConn won the 1999 national title, but the work really began in 1997
HARTFORD – The run to the Final Four was one Richard Hamilton, Kevin Freeman and Jake Voskuhl each say was vital to their basketball growth, as well as the team’s chemistry. UConn coach Jim Calhoun said it was one of the most important stretches in school history.
The Huskies’ journey to the 1997 NIT Final Four is one often forgotten about in the history of a now four-time national championship program. But it helped springboard an epic two-year journey, starting with a trip to the Elite Eight, culminated a year later with their first national championship. It was a run that cemented UConn’s place as one of the country’s top basketball establishments.
College basketball’s landscape was a lot different during that time. Heralded freshman classes are expected to deliver immediately and head off right to the NBA. Giving players a chance to get comfortable playing at a new level, get used to each other, and to learn how their new coach operates is all but forgotten. It’s how the Huskies eventually reached their championship glory, though.
The 1996-97 season was a year of transition. Ray Allen left after the prior season for the NBA. Hamilton, Freeman and Voskuhl highlighted the new freshman group, while Ricky Moore and Rashamel Jones were back for their sophomore years with high expectations. Kirk King returned for his senior season ready for an expanded role, both on and off the court as the team’s captain.
It started well, but unraveled when King and Moore were each suspended for receiving illegal benefits, with King getting the boot for the season and Moore for five games. It began with an 11-3 record and ended with a 14-14 regular season mark. After losing only one home game the previous three seasons combined (the infamous Kerry Kittles game at Gampel in 1995), the Huskies lost seven on their two home floors. It had all the markings of a lost season.
These days you often hear fans and sometimes coaches belittle the NIT. Some schools even just pass on the invitation. For UConn, it gave its freshmen a chance for more practice times, more games, and some postseason experience. Accepting the invitation was a no-brainer.
“We just needed to play games,” Voskuhl said. “We needed to learn how to win. Coach knew how to win, but we didn’t know how to.”
The Huskies lost their last four regular season games, including senior night to Seton Hall at the Hartford Civic Center, a night that King was honored, but in street clothes instead of the home Connecticut uniform. They lost a one-point nail-biter to Pittsburgh in the first round of the Big East Tournament and barely qualified for the NIT with a .500 record, the minimum requirement.
To be fair, UConn, because of its drawing potential in New York, the home of the NIT Final Four, played only homes games to start, defeating Iona, Bradley, and Nebraska in Storrs. At The Garden, the Huskies lost a tough overtime game to Florida State before beating Arkansas in the consolation game to finish third in the tournament.
“It was really what we needed,” Freeman said. “Coach Calhoun said our goal was to be one of the last teams standing at the end of the season. We had a rough year, but in the end, we won our last game and went into the offseason with a positive mindset. It was really the beginning.”
Hamilton, the 1999 Final Four Most Outstanding player and also an NBA champion with the Pistons in 2004, still looks back fondly at that experience.
“Nowadays, you see coaches who don’t always take the invite to the NIT,” Hamilton said. “Calhoun looked at it as a growing process for us because we took our bumps and bruises (that season). We had our hurdles and it was like a rollercoaster ride. We really didn’t find out who we were until the NIT and I thought it was the tournament that really allowed to come out the next year to play the way we were capable of playing.”
“It’s part of the whole deal of experiencing success,” noted Calhoun. “I remember meeting with the guys after the season and telling them we won’t be here again. We’ll end up someplace else and we ended up someplace else, obviously.”
With a more experienced team, along with the critical addition of point guard Khalid El-Amin, the Huskies’ next destination was the 1998 Elite Eight where they did not experience the scheduling break they did the year before. As the sixth-ranked team in the country, UConn found itself up against No. 1 North Carolina at the Greensboro Coliseum in North Carolina (also the temporary home at the time of the former Hartford Whalers). Despite only trailing by one point with under five minutes left, the Huskies eventually fell to a Tar Heels team led by Vince Carter.
With rumors swirling of Hamilton leaving for the NBA, he came back for one more season. The Huskies went 34-2 (one of the losses Hamilton missed due to injury) and, as you all know, defeated mighty Duke, 9.5-point favorites, in the national championship game, 77-74.
It’s a good bet none of that happens without the lessons and experiences the core players learned from their difficult, but ultimately rewarding 1997 season.
Today’s Huskies, although not even as close to talented as the 1996-97 team, can use lessons from that season. The players can easily think they’re just playing out the string of a hard season, but these late games can make a difference in their development. Current coach Dan Hurley, who took Christian Vital and Sidney Wilson out of the starting lineup Sunday due to attitude issues, has stated that on several occasions. Every game, in its own way, matters.
Sunday’s contest was a prime example. Trailing by 15 in the second half, UConn went on an inspiring 16-0 run that fired up a nostalgic XL Center crowd. Ultimately, behind two late threes from Hartford native Cane Broome, Cincinnati escaped with a 64-60 win that dropped the Huskies to 13-14. Even though they lost, that stretch is something to build on.
At halftime, the 1999 team was honored for the 20th anniversary of their title. The championship journey was not an overnight success story, however. It actually began in March of 1997 – the run that started it all.