STORRS — Omar Calhoun didn't play in the Final Four, played only four minutes in the NCAA Tournament and didn't make a basket over the last two months of the season.
But in the moments following UConn's run to the national championship last April, Calhoun promised anyone who asked that he would return to Storrs — and things would be different.
"It was definitely a tough year," Calhoun said Friday as he was heading over to play in pickup games. "I knew I wasn't 100 percent from the start of the season, but I feel like I learned a lot throughout the season, what it takes to be a champion. I feel like it happened for a reason; maybe this year is supposed to be the year I'm supposed to lead the team to another one."
Calhoun, a 6-foot-5, 205 pound junior guard, averaged 10.3 points as a freshman but was slowed by impingements in both hips. He had surgeries to correct both hips in the spring of 2013 and was still recovering when his sophomore season began.
"I went right from rehabbing to playing," he said.
And he struggled. He was replaced in the starting lineup in late December and never played more than 15 minutes in any game the rest of the way. His last made field goal was at Cincinnati on Feb. 6 — he missed his last 13 shots from the floor — and finished at 30.5 percent (40-for-131), including 24.1 percent (19-for-79) on three-point attempts.
"His work ethic never changed," coach Kevin Ollie said. "Getting through the times when he wasn't playing — he stayed tough mentally. Physically, he wasn't out on the court, but he was an elite teammate."
Shortly after UConn came home from Texas with the trophy, Calhoun went back to work in the weight room with strength-and-conditioning coach Travis Ilian and athletic trainer James Doran to rebuild his body and his game. Then he went home to Brooklyn for a heart-to-heart talk with his father, Omar Sr.
"We sat down to re-analyze everything," he said. "Where are we going to go from here? I was going to come back stronger than ever. I've gotten a lot stronger in a lot of different areas. Coaches see that. My father's message was, 'Just dedicate myself, whatever happens in the future is what I put into it.' So every single day, every single second, I'm always trying to do something to better myself."
Transferring was never considered seriously. Instead, Calhoun doubled-down on determination.
"A lot of different thoughts come into your mind," Calhoun said. "You could put the blame on a lot of different people. But as a growing young man, you have to see what you can do to make the most out of the situation that you're in. I felt like I still have an opportunity here to do a lot of great things."
Calhoun spent the summer on campus working on fundamentals, strength and flexibility. As September and the new academic year began, coaches have seen the results, a quicker, more explosive player, more sure of himself with the ball, with stronger legs to support his shot.
"When it comes to stepping into the shot," Calhoun said, "your first step, changing direction, playing defense. Everything is played with your legs. If your legs aren't there, you're a step behind everything and that's how it looked [last season]."
Said Ollie: "You always learn about someone — when adversity hits, you see character come out and we saw Omar's true character, his dedication for our program, his love for UConn. He probably had external factors, people telling him he needs to do this or that, but internally he knew 'this was the place for me to grow.' For him to stick with it shows his toughness, and it's going to help him in life, understanding the wave of change, not letting it crush you, and riding that wave to a better place."
The new season will bring an entire new Husky team. Shabazz Napier and Tyler Olander are gone, as are Niels Giffey and Lasan Kromah, players who took Calhoun's minutes at the wing. He will be competing for his old job, and if he can regain his three-point touch he can make the kind of contribution Giffey did last season.
"When I knew I wasn't at my best," Calhoun said, "sitting watching the game, I knew that if I were 100 percent I'd be able to make a tremendous impact. I knew that this coming season I was going to be ready."
Champs At The Rent
The team will be at Rentschler Field, just outside Gate B, to sign autographs Saturday at 10 a.m., before the Boise State game. Shabazz Napier, who was on campus Friday, could be with his former teammates. … As expected, Steve Enoch, 6-10 power forward from Norwalk, was on campus for his official visit, which will last through the weekend. The thinking is that Enoch, who has broken through to four-star, top-50 status, is leaning heavily toward staying in his home state. … Djery Baptiste, 6-11, who visited UConn last week, has committed to Vanderbilt. Ollie is still searching for wings, centers and shooting guards.