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April 2, 2004

Taliek Brown

Jim Calhoun

Ben Gordon

Emeka Okafor


JOHN GERDES: We are now joined by Connecticut head coach Jim Calhoun. Coach, make an opening statement, then we'll open it up for questions.

COACH CALHOUN: To state the obvious, obviously we are tremendously happy to be here. After being a Division I head coach for 32 years, coming to the Final Four on a number of occasions, this is our second trip coming as a participant, I would clearly say, at least in my opinion, that when you start calculating the teams, I would have to say that one of the exciting parts about this weekend is the fact, maybe not so exciting to me, but for everybody else, maybe not the four coaches involved, I think all teams can make a legitimate claim why they can win the tournament, legitimately make that claim. We played Georgia Tech early. Emeka Okafor was hurt. Made no difference, they were better than us early in the season. Duke certainly by winning the ACC proved it was, without question, one of the best one or two, possibly three teams in the United States. Eddie Sutton, who is a terrific, terrific basketball coach, his team I thought was one of the toughest. I thought the only team that could beat Pittsburgh from our league was Oklahoma State because of their physical toughness, their mental toughness. We've had a pretty good season ourselves. With that said, we're looking forward to playing Duke. Duke is the team at least in the past 10, 15 years certainly of this particular generation, that has set the standard in men's basketball. Therefore, as '99 when we beat them, it was terrific because we beat them, but it was also terrific of who we beat because we have so much respect for Mike and that program. I would say the same thing, not necessarily that we're going to beat them, but we're playing against a team we have so much respect for. I'm looking forward to the game as well as our kids.

Q. Given how well Ben Gordon has played all year, can you explain what's happened to him in the post-season, Big East and NCAA tournament?

COACH CALHOUN: Well, you said he played well all year, and he did. I think that people expected more. They expected him to be a super player, which he was. But I think what happened is that Emeka Okafor went for 14 point scorer last year, 14, 15 points a game, averaging about 21 for a 15-game stretch. All of a sudden Ben, who was by the way third in the Big East in assists, I think fifth in scoring, and we had the No. 1 assist guy in Taliek, people didn't see the fact, all the things Ben was doing. The best thing for him, not necessarily the best thing for the coach's stomach or the rest of us, is when Emeka Okafor went down. Ben took it upon himself in the Big East tournament to put back-to-back 29-point games up, quite frankly get us into the finals, and then really becoming MVP, break Allen Iverson's record. He's continued the same style of play, aggressive play in the NCAA tournament. He's really been a special, special player, playing as well as any guard in the country, playing with the top level of players in the United States right now. He's a terrific basketball player. I just think quite frankly, just by nature, we used to call him Gentle Ben, and we love him to death, one of the nicest kids you're ever going to meet, but it wasn't always said affectionately. It was the fact he deferred. With his talent, I sometimes had discussions sometimes with him about deferring. He has taken over our team's leadership, our team's scoring. He has been a wonderful basketball player, as he has all year. The guy has scored almost 1800 points in three years. But I would agree with you the last seven or eight games, he has been absolutely special.

Q. People are saying this is going to be a fast-paced transition-oriented game, that that favors you. Do you believe that? What kind of game do you expect?

COACH CALHOUN: Well, you know, I think both of us want to run. The tough part for us, as it might be for Mike a little bit, is the more the floor is open, the better we are. You don't expose maybe some of the things that we don't have, and maybe you don't expose some of the things that Duke doesn't have if we both can get in the open floor, because we're both very, very good when we're doing that. Secondly, the dilemma is, do we -- a lot of it depends certainly enough on Emeka Okafor, do we sometimes make sure it gets more halfcourt so we can get Emeka Okafor the ball inside. Then again, everybody says how small Duke is. Last time I was able to read a roster, I saw that Randolph was 6' 10", 245, and Williams is 6' 9", about 300 pounds. He's not 300 pounds, but his shoulders look that back. They bring Horvath off the bench. Then Deng at 6'8" 220 plays so much bigger. I think both teams want to get them down the court and it will be a feeling-out process. The biggest problem against defending Duke isn't running against their plays, it's running against their systems in the sense they want penetration, kick-outs and isolation, all based upon putting the ball on the floor off the bounce, beating you that way. As the game gets in pace, that normally happens. They're so good at it, they work so hard at it, it's a dilemma that we've talked about and we're trying -- what we'd love to have happen in the ideal world, we run and we stop their transition. We fast break and we stop their transition. In an ideal world, that would be the ideal game for us.

Q. As a veteran who has kind of been through a number of tournaments, are there some common threads, components that a team needs to get to this point and ultimately win it all? Can you tie that to your team?

COACH CALHOUN: Well, you know, I think you see every one of the teams has a veteran or two who notes what they're doing. I don't think you can find many, many players that -- it's almost -- I'm sure there's been teams, I know back to the Arizona team when they had a freshman point guard who happened to be a great player, but it's very difficult if you don't have some veteran components, okay? Secondly, when it all breaks down, I know I coached at Northeastern University for 14 years, and this is no hit at lesser schools, but by playing against Syracuse, Pittsburgh, North Carolina State, Maryland, Georgia Tech, then against Kansas, Missouri, all the teams that Oklahoma State has to play, all of us are a little more prepared by the time things happen. Things happen in tournaments. But I think by the fact you've been against more talented teams, teams as physically strong as you, I think that common thread, generally speaking, kind of gets you here and gets you out of the tough moments. I would say that common thread comes back to us. Philippe Brown has played in 131 games. In this day and age, we have two real veterans, two juniors, Ben and Emeka Okafor, then we have some kids who have developed very well for us. I think that common thread would be the type of competition you face on a daily basis. Our senior leadership is a key ingredient. I think some of the toughness that you get by playing night in and night out against good people develops a tougher mindset. It doesn't mean we have necessarily all that many better players than other teams. It means very simply that your mindset may be more able to adjust to different kinds of situations.

Q. Maybe I'm getting too old, not sleeping enough, but I don't remember the last time two teams met in a game like this where each point guard had won over a hundred games. Your take on that. I'm sure if I ask you to choose who you'd take, you'd take your guy, but tell me why.

COACH CALHOUN: I'd take our guy because I think he's a warrior. Then again, so is Chris Duhon. I take our guy because he's won an awful lot of games, so as Chris Duhon. I take our guy because he is brings leadership and character to our team, and can really defend the heck out of you. But so does Chris Duhon. What I'm saying to you is you have two peas in a pod, that Mike and I are fortunate enough to be able to coach the two kids we have who do some special, special things. Neither one are averaging double figures, but both made incredible contributions during the game. I don't know if you can win without having that kind of kid. They're going to get the loose ball. They're going to make that extra rotation on defense. They're going to push the ball to start a fast break. They're going to make some very good decisions that maybe another player might not be willing to make or take. Therefore, I think both Chris and Taliek probably share an awful lot more, have an awful lot more in common. One may shoot better, one a little less, one maybe goes by you a little better. But they're two peas in a pod. They're both terrific basketball players.

Q. Could you sort of chronicle the problems that Emeka Okafor has had through the year with his health, his back, how has that affected your season? Could you talk about what you've seen in Shelden Williams' development throughout the NCAA tournament for Duke?

COACH CALHOUN: There's no question that Emeka Okafor came to us three years ago, as I've mentioned on numerous occasions, he's one of the most focused human beings I ever met in my life. That includes in the classroom, 3.8, graduating in three years. He's actually graduating in two and a half years in our honors program in finance because he's only taking four hours right now. He's an amazing, amazing kid. He carries that into basketball, into the weight room. I have a theory he's gone from a 214-pound kid to when he came to 256 pounds, that he really, really is I shouldn't say overly muscular, but his body fat is about 5.2, at almost 260 pounds. He developed this small stress fracture, which became a little larger by the end of the season, and it was affecting him and causing back spasms. It has made our team at times be disruptive. Georgia Tech game, he just couldn't really give what he had. He had sat out a game in the middle of the season, in our preconference schedule. So at times I think the biggest thing that happened is he couldn't practice as much as he wanted to. He is one of those kids who lives on practice and development. There's no question in my mind that it affected our team. The positive effect that it had as we started nearing the end of our season is when he was out, we knew he was out, we said he was out, the other kids picked up the reins. I thought that might have been one of the significant points of our basketball season. As far as Shelden Williams, I watched him in high school, he was a terrific, terrific basketball player. I thought he'd be a pretty good power forward, a very good power forward. He's one of the top five players in America. But he's developed into a Carlos Boozer. I know a lot of people at Duke said Carlos Boozer took time to get there. Took time to get there and got a national championship, number one. Number two, he now is becoming a great, great pro. Kids develop at different rates. Shelden, my personal opinion, this is from the outside, is developing faster than Carlos did. He's really giving them a great presence inside. For Mike, I'm sure he's critical to have as a great inside presence. With Randolph coming, they can really hit you with two big guys that can both play. I thought Shelden developed tremendously. He wanted to shoot jump shots and be a free man in high school. Mike with his persuasive personality got him to do a lot more around the block, and he's very, very good.

Q. When you were recruiting Emeka Okafor, did you get a chance to see some of the other kids coming out of Houston around that time? Any general thoughts you might have on the talent level of some of the Texas kids.

COACH CALHOUN: Well, I consider myself to be one of the best talent evaluators in America. It's a possibility (smiling). We thought John Lucas didn't have a position. His position is on the court making great plays. We went down there initially. I saw Emeka Okafor at Nike camp and loved him. Wasn't sure what he was yet, except a great athlete. And John was much more advanced basketball-wise, playing on the same high school team. I never could figure out where John was going to fit. Was he a small two guard or was he a point guard. But he shot an awful lot. You know, obviously he developed into just a terrific, terrific basketball player. Mec took longer to develop. But by the time we saw him in November of that year, last time we could go out and see him, he had developed so much, he was scary. By the end of the year, when we saw him, we were so scared, we had done an awful lot of work recruiting him, that we were going to lose him. He had three visits. Decided to wait. I thought we were getting something very special on our hands. If you think about six, then 12, then almost 20 points a game in three years, that's an incredible, incredible progress. The only reason he's averaging 18 or 17 point something now, he was at 20 till he got hurt, he's averaging 11 rebounds a game, he'll be one of the greatest shot blockers in the history of college basketball. As far as I'm concerned, I don't know if I've ever seen a kid develop in more different ways than Emeka Okafor. But the Houston area certainly has produced a great many terrific players. The Roberts kid at Mississippi State, all three of them played together when they were freshman. I hope that coach was undefeated, by the way.

Q. Emeka Okafor you mentioned graduating in two and a half, three years, why is it so difficult for other student athletes in an elite program to get out in five or six years?

COACH CALHOUN: Well, it's difficult because of the work load. Emeka Okafor isn't just unique in the sense of a basketball player. He's unique in the sense of a person. As a matter of fact, if I canvassed this room, I know a lot of you -- you graduated in three years, correct?

Q. Four.

COACH CALHOUN: Oh, geeze. I know you had a lot of other activities. When people talk about graduation rates, I think you're heading that way. I'll head right there with you. When the NCAA, in what is a right thing to do, finds the right way to do it, I'll be very happy. We had seven kids go early. They all counted against us. We've had eight kids transfer and graduate at other institutions. They continue to count against us. The reason we have graduation rates, in my humble opinion, is because we don't want student athletes to come to an institution, and that institution make a lot of money on them by exploiting them. Therefore, thus we want to make sure they get a quality education. I take someone like Ray Allen, working on his degree, he's making $79 million over the next seven years. I don't consider that exploitation, at least in my neighborhood. Maybe yours might have been different. In my neighborhood, that's not exploitation. When the NCAA can come up with some kind of reasonable formula to penalize schools who don't do the job of making sure their kids get educated, and secondly get their degree, I'll go a hundred percent along with it and really abide by it. We graduate 86% of all of our kids who complete their eligibility. That to me is a much more significant stat than any other stat when kids leave early for the NBA. They are getting a pretty good job, for most of them. All the kids in the lottery, those are pretty good jobs. Honestly, they are. Those $7 or $8 million a year job. For all the money writers make, that's nothing to you. But to a guy like me... On a more serious note, I will pay a hundred percent attention and react as we should, we're committed to doing the same thing, all of us, when the NCAA, which is doing the right thing, does it the right way and starts to calculate it properly. What you see sometimes is a very small specter. We were even unable, because we didn't want to be biased towards kids because of privacy, identify records of one of the institutions involved, which tells you how small the sample would be. I would agree with you a hundred percent. There's got to be a way in which we can get it done better, but if a kid goes out to the NBA after one, two or three years, that you should be necessarily penalized for that. The Emeka Okafors, if he never played basketball at UConn, he would have been an unusual student there. You need to understand that. Most of us went to school and tried to do the best we possibly could. It took me almost five years to get through, then I went on to graduate school. My point being, it took me, for a lot of different reasons, a while to get through. Maybe I shouldn't say that. Maybe I'm a reflection of a guy that takes five years.

JOHN GERDES: Thank you, coach.


JOHN GERDES: We'll open it up to questions to the student athletes.

Q. Taliek, you've won more than a hundred games in your Connecticut career? Duhon has also won more than a hundred games. On this team, you're not a star. On his team, maybe he's a marginal star. What would you say to him if you could talk to him about what your roles are and do you appreciate what he's done in his career?

TALIEK BROWN: Yeah, I think we got about the same roles, you know. He's done the same things I've done in my career, my four years at UConn. It's just going to be a good battle when we go up against each other.

Q. There was a point in your career in high school when teams didn't really even guard you because of your limited offensive skills. Where are you now in terms of do you see you being the focus of a team's defense, in conference play especially?

EMEKA OKAFOR: You said in high school?

Q. Now.

EMEKA OKAFOR: I mean, things change. Throughout my years of playing Connecticut, freshman year, get the ball, teams didn't pay much attention. Sophomore year, a little more attention than now. I started to get a lot more attention. Double teams, triple teams. I'm learning how to deal with it. I guess it's just part of the progression.

Q. Could you update us on your condition? What are you doing to physically prepare yourself? How vital do you see yourself to your team's success for tomorrow?

EMEKA OKAFOR: I'm feeling real good right now. As far as what I do to get myself ready, I'm practicing full-time. Basically I'm just doing my ab routine to keep my back strong, doing my shoulder exercises to keep my shoulder loose. As far as my importance to the team, I'm just as important as every other member on the team. I can't say I'm any more or less important. They already proved they can win without me. At this point we just need everybody to chip in and do what they need to do.

Q. What are your memories of going against Shelden Williams in some camps, what you know about him as a player, what you see in him going into this game tomorrow night?

EMEKA OKAFOR: The guy, he's real strong. I remember posting up against him. He's like a brick wall, real hard to move. I was pretty -- I really got a chance to play against him during the Pan Am trials up in Colorado Springs. You know, I was real surprised with his footwork. He had pretty good footwork for his size, pretty decent foot speed. He hit a couple of jumpers, snuck in a couple on me. Really good.

Q. I'm sure you and John at Bel Aire talked about the dream of playing college basketball. What is that like for you two to be at the biggest stage in college basketball? Have you talked about that?

EMEKA OKAFOR: It's great. We shared a lot of high school experiences. Now we can share this great college experience. We haven't gotten in contact yet here at the Final Four, but throughout the tournament, back and forth talking trash to each other, saying that each other better hold up to their end of the deal so we can meet in the championship game. We're trying our best to full file that.

Q. Did you plan on zipping through college as fast as you apparently are doing it? How easy is it for you to balance your classroom demands with your athletic demands?

EMEKA OKAFOR: When I came into college, I already had a couple of credits coming in. I mean, I had two options. Either I could have a relaxed freshman year, could put a little extra effort and go ahead and finish early. The idea was in my head early. So then it was just how to commit the plan. Coach told me that players oftentimes stay for summer school anyway. Summertime, easy time to work on my game, work on my body, pick up some credits and whatnot. I don't know. I just made use of every, you know, advantage given to me. When I saw an opportunity, I took it. People say, "How did you do this? How did you do that? How did you graduate so quickly?" I mean, I just had an opportunity that other people didn't. Not everybody has the time, you know, to take classes during the summer. I did. So I went ahead and did it. It just happened to fall in line with what I wanted to do in life. From that standpoint, wasn't really difficult at all.

Q. Ben, a lot of guys talk about needing to step up, whether it's during the season or post-season. You've done it the last couple, three weeks. How did you do that? Coach Calhoun even said in the past you had the nickname Gentle Ben, not always complimentary, because he wanted you to be more assertive. Can you just talk about how you've shed that and been more assertive?

BEN GORDON: I mean, I've just been playing my game, you know. Things have just been turning around in my favor. I haven't really been doing anything too much different than what I usually do. I just plan better, I guess.

Q. Ben, much of the pre-Final Four talk has been about your game tomorrow, not the other game. Could you take a look at that Duke team, the match-up you have between each other as a team?

BEN GORDON: Say that again. Could I take a look at?

Q. Take a look at the match-up of the two teams, Duke and Connecticut, how you match up against each other.

BEN GORDON: Yeah, we match up very good. A lot of our guards have the same capabilities. I think Taliek and Chris Duhon are pretty similar in their leadership abilities. Guys like JJ Redick, and Rashad Anderson, they both shoot the ball really well. They have good digs just like we do. I think we'll match up pretty well against them.

Q. Taliek, did you ever play against Chris in any AAU ball? What do you a admire most about his game?

TALIEK BROWN: Yeah, I played against him in the All-American game. You know, I just like his will. He just plays real hard, he's real aggressive out there, his will to win. He'll never give up. He'll just give 110%.

Q. Ben, Taliek, you guys are a little older, have a lot of games between you. Duke has a younger team. Does that have any bearing at this point in the tournament or is it pretty much all equal?

BEN GORDON: I think it's pretty much all equal right now. I think their guys have just as much as experience as we do. They're not freshmen or anything like that. They pretty much understand what a big-time game is, things like that. I think it's pretty much even.

Q. Taliek, you said earlier this year when you broke the assist record, "I guess I did something in my career." Has this run kind of validated you from past criticisms?

TALIEK BROWN: Yes. I think I proved a lot of people wrong. I just came out, played hard, showed people that I get my team to the Final Four.

Q. Taliek, how your season ended last year, does this season?

TALIEK BROWN: Definitely last year, we said we'd be back here in the Final Four. Which we are. We got the same locker room that we lost in. We just came back. That means we have unfinished business to take care of. That's all that means.

JOHN GERDES: Thank you very much, gentlemen.

End of FastScripts...

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