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Huskies best in show

THE BALTIMORE SUN

STORRS, Conn. - The best place in America to watch the city game is on a campus surrounded by farmland, seven miles off the interstate, and past a pumpkin patch, a half dozen other signs of commerce and a handful of traffic signals.

One other thing.

"It's cold," said Rudy Gay.

The freshman from Baltimore is the latest big-name recruit lured by the indoor heat generated by the University of Connecticut, which needed less than two decades to grow from obscurity into the nation's best basketball college. That process peaked in April, when it became the first to sweep the men's and women's NCAA titles.

Neither championship was a fluke. It was the third straight for the UConn women and fifth in the past decade for coach Geno Auriemma, whose team posted a mild upset in the final against Tennessee, where Pat Summitt has six titles but none since 1998. When the Huskies pounded Georgia Tech in San Antonio, it was the second championship in six seasons for Jim Calhoun, the only men's coach to earn more than one NCAA ring in the past 12.

Born in Italy and raised outside Philadelphia, Auriemma viewed UConn as a steppingstone when he left an assistant's job at Virginia in 1985. Calhoun arrived a year later. A native of the Boston suburb of Braintree, he had turned Northeastern into a New England sensation before he tried his luck in a higher league.

Started in 1974, the women's program had broken .500 once before Auriemma was hired. The men were usually one and done in March, but they had gone to 13 NCAA tournaments between 1950 and '79.

"People forget that this had been a good basketball school," Calhoun said. "They also overlook the fact that when we got here, the Big East was experiencing some heady times. Georgetown [1984] and Villanova ['85] were coming off NCAA titles, St. John's had been to the Final Four. To catch up, we had to grow in a hurry, and there was a commitment to do that."

Joining the Big East as a charter member wasn't the only significant stroke that occurred in 1979. On the other side of Hartford, in Bristol, ESPN had its first broadcast and began boosting the league's fortunes, not that this campus was the best backdrop in the 1980s. Before the 10,000-seat Gampel Pavilion opened in January 1990, games were played in a drab field house.

"I couldn't believe the facilities were as bad as they were," Auriemma said. "There were seats behind both baskets, but none behind the benches. We wheeled out metal bleachers, the kind you find at a Little League game. People were saying that we shouldn't be in the Big East, that we should have stayed in the Yankee Conference, but we've created something that's pretty unique, an environment that people want to be a part of."

Auriemma and Calhoun have done more than build basketball powers. They've used the game to transform not just a sleepy athletic program, but also to change the image of their university, and by extension, the entire state.

This town of 11,000, which sits on the Yankees-Red Sox fault line, has become a focal point for the state's sports fans, who don't have a major league franchise to call their own.

The basketball teams split their schedules between Gampel and the Hartford Civic Center. Without the goodwill generated by the sport, would the athletic department have had enough resources to move football to Division I-A status? Would state legislators have committed $2.3 billion to make over the university?

The entire state feeds off basketball, which is run by men whose offices are separated by a few feet.

"What's the Ray Charles CD, Genius Loves Company?" Auriemma said. "These guys love being around each other, constantly pushing each other. There's a feeling here that we're going to win, because we always win. It doesn't matter who's here now, who graduates next year, we're going to win."

That might not be so simple after the departure of some serious star power. Calhoun must replace three starters, including Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon, who were picked second and third, respectively, in the NBA draft in June. Auriemma will argue that Diana Taurasi, a two-time Final Four Most Valuable Player, was the best college player ever.

"Diana was like Ali, in the old days," Auriemma said. "When we walked into a building, she tells you exactly what she's going to do, does it, then reminds you afterward, all the while laughing. It's bad because she's a woman. It's OK for Ray Lewis to say, 'OK, I'm gonna knock your head off.' For Diana Taurasi to do the same thing to Tennessee, that's not OK yet.

"Now that she's gone, we may have lost some of that. All of these people who have been waiting are going to get their shot at us."

Actually, the Huskies have enough talent to extend their dynasty and become the first women's program to win four straight titles.

Returning starters Jessica Moore, Ann Strother and Barbara Turner combined to average 34 points and 16 rebounds last season. Junior college transfer Rashidat Sadiq played for the Nigerian Olympic team, and the freshmen include Charde Houston, who broke Cheryl Miller's career high school scoring record in California.

If the men are going to make another NCAA run, they'll need production from Gay and Josh Boone, a pair of teenagers who got to know each other at the Cecil-Kirk Recreation Center in Northeast Baltimore.

Calhoun has turned out some great wings, but Ray Allen, Richard Hamilton and Caron Butler didn't land here with the expectations facing Gay, who played the past two seasons at Archbishop Spalding. He's 6 feet 9 and 220 pounds, with gifts that range from elbow-above-the-rim dunks to running the offense.

Boone, a 6-10 sophomore center who played at South Carroll High and West Nottingham Academy, came here under the recruiting radar and started 37 games as a freshman. His points usually came on put-backs, but now he's a primary offensive option and made nine of 10 attempts from the field in last week's exhibition rout of Bryant. Boone does not take bad shots and is the early favorite to lead the nation in field-goal percentage.

Boone and Gay are in a mix loaded with go-to prospects and front-court depth. Junior wings Rashad Anderson and Denham Brown can get up the floor, and more is expected from sophomore forward Charlie Villanueva.

Taliek Brown is gone at the point, where sophomore Marcus Williams settles in with 14 games of experience and Calhoun hopes freshman A.J. Price can return from a medical scare for the second semester.

"I think it's going to be a process," Boone said, "with people finally deciding they're going to step up and really become a leader on this team."

Someone usually does.

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