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Calhoun returns to coaching UConn's men's team

UConn coach Jim Calhoun appears on the mend. The Hall of Famer has to hope his return can salvage an NCAA tournament bid for the ailing Huskies.

Calhoun returned to his coaching duties Thursday after a medical leave of more than three weeks forced him to miss seven games. He has no restrictions on what he can do and will be on the bench for Saturday's game against Cincinnati.

"I both felt that the time away was important for my personal and professional well-being and that I am ready to move ahead from this point at full speed," Calhoun said.

Calhoun returns to a team that needs a sizzling, upset-heavy winning streak to sniff the NCAA tournament. The Huskies (14-10, 4-7 Big East) have sunk to the bottom half of the conference standings a year after a No. 1 seed and a Final Four berth.

UConn's top moment came Jan. 23 when associate head coach George Blaney led the Huskies to an upset of then-No. 1 Texas. But the Huskies threw away their momentum like one of their 352 turnovers this season when they lost the next game at Providence — and that started the second of their three-game losing streaks this season. UConn ended the skid by eking out a seven-point win Saturday against lowly DePaul (1 win in the Big East) and lost at No. 2 Syracuse 72-67 on Wednesday night.

"We still think we're pretty good," Blaney said. "We still think we can be a factor in every game we play in."

UConn has gone 3-4 in Calhoun's absence. School officials have not said what was ailing Calhoun, but said it had nothing to do with his three bouts with cancer and was not related to his heart.

The losing wasn't the only thing that took some getting used to in Storrs, a bucolic college town, located amid the dairy farms of northeastern Connecticut. UConn games without Calhoun, as New England as a bowl of clam chowder, have been way too quiet. Gone has been the stomping, the cussing, the barking at officials.

Longtime followers of the program described the 67-year-old Calhoun as more down than angry after recent losses. He never knew what kind of performance he'd get out of the erratic Huskies and almost seemed resigned to that fate.

Asked recently what UConn basketball is like without Calhoun, forward Stanley Robinson cracked, "(Blaney) doesn't scream."

Added freshman center Alex Oriakhi: "The yelling. That's the biggest difference."

Blaney, a former head coach at four schools including Holy Cross, is more laid back. He has calmly watched games with his arms folded — never any hint he was about to blow a gasket over a blown call. The Syracuse game was the 14th time since 2003 he has coached in Calhoun's place, including the NCAA opener last season.

"I think initially it was easy because they know me and I've been around a while, especially with the older guys," Blaney said. "But I think as the time goes on, it's a little more difficult for them because they're used to his style and the way he runs practices. I would say it might be a little confusing to them at this stage."

The two gym rats forged a relationship when Blaney coached at Stonehill and Calhoun was in the high school ranks. They crossed paths again when Blaney moved on to Holy Cross and Calhoun went to Northeastern.

Calhoun is making $1.6 million the final year of a six-year deal and was on the brink of signing a multi-year extension in December, though the contract was never completed.

"This has no bearing on the contract whatsoever," athletic director Jeffrey Hathaway said.

The deal is still there for Calhoun — if he wants it. Calhoun, the gruff Irishman, spoke last season about retiring if the Huskies won the national championship. Now he's in his 38th year as a college head coach.

Calhoun has been treated for cancer three times during his UConn career, including last summer when he successfully battled skin cancer. In June, he had to be hospitalized after breaking several ribs during a charity bike ride.

"It's going to take a lot to keep coach Calhoun out. A lot," Oriakhi said. "If you break ribs and keep going on your bike, this is nothing for him."

There's also an ongoing NCAA investigation into a report by Yahoo! Sports that former team manager Josh Nochimson helped guide basketball recruit Nate Miles to Connecticut, giving him lodging, transportation, meals and representation. Calhoun has acknowledged that he or his staff may have made mistakes in recruiting Miles.

Hathaway said the NCAA and school are in the middle of the review and had no other comment.

Calhoun has not talked to the press since the start of his sabbatical and repeated attempts to reach him by The Associated Press have been unsuccessful. He'll address the media at the end of Friday's practice.

If Calhoun does retire at the end of the season, this is no immediate successor in place. Blaney is 70 and, while he's filled in when needed, is certainly not a long-term solution.

"Whoever takes over, that's going to be the hot seat," former UConn star and Celtics guard Ray Allen said. It's hard to imagine anyone having more impact on the team than Calhoun. UConn had played in the NCAA tournament just twice in 20 years before Calhoun led them to nine trips in the 1990s.

The Huskies need some turning around again, starting with signature victories to leap back into NCAA consideration. Their grueling schedule features games this month at No. 4 Villanova and No. 5 West Virginia. UConn is 1-5 vs. the Top 25 and the win against Texas looks less impressive as the Longhorns have sputtered.

UConn might have to win out and reach the Big East tournament final to be considered for an at-large NCAA bid.

That's quite a heady mission for this team — with or without its legendary coach.