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Coach’s Corner: Kids Can Learn From UConn’s Win

PJ Carlesimo P.J. Carlesimo (image: NBAE/Getty Images). P.J. Carlesimo is no stranger to March Madness. The veteran basketball coach led Seton Hall University to “the big dance” six times, taking the Pirates all the way to the NCAA Championship Game in 1989. A former NBA head coach, he has also been a head coach and an assistant coach for medal-winning USA national teams, including the legendary 1992 USA Dream Team.

The University of Connecticut men’s basketball team won the NCAA Championship on Monday night with a 60-54 victory over the University of Kentucky. While it was the culmination of an outstanding NCAA Tournament, it also provided a great lesson for youth basketball coaches and players.

Many lessons, actually.

After watching UConn complete its impressive run to the national title, veteran basketball coach P.J. Carlesimo came away with these four important points for youth coaches to deliver to their kids: 

1) There’s no such thing as an upset. “In the end, we saw a No. 7 team versus a No. 8 team for the national championship.”

2) Never underestimate the importance of free throws. Connecticut made all 10 of its free-throw attempts, while Kentucky was just 13 of 24 from the foul line.

3) A better defensive team can always overcome a better offensive team.

4) Size doesn’t always determine success. The smaller, quicker Connecticut backcourt outplayed their bigger opponent defensively, said Carlesimo.

“Connecticut is a great example for youth players and coaches,” he said. “They weren’t expected to get to the title game, but because they did the little things – because they defended so well and shot free throws really well -- they were able to overcome any perceived shortcomings. It doesn’t matter what the expectations are or what people think. If you defend, your size is not going to be a problem. Again, fundamentals are the key. It doesn’t matter how tall you are. It doesn’t matter if the other team has a reputation. It’s a great lesson for youth.”

Kentucky’s run to the title game was impressive in its own right. The Wildcats were a No. 8 seed going into the tournament because they had played below expectations during the season. As Carlesimo noted, Kentucky did a better job these last few weeks than they did at any previous point in the year. The concentration and the focus got through to them. That said, Connecticut was the most focused team in the tournament.

“Connecticut is a tremendous learning example for kids,” said Carlesimo. “Even though Kentucky was bigger and more athletic, the combination of Connecticut’s experience and their focus – the little things – made the difference. Connecticut defended better and they made free throws. Those things sound simple to kids, but that’s why they won a national championship. Kentucky didn’t win because they didn’t do it. 

“Those little, stupid things that coaches talk about actually do make a difference.”

It wasn’t just Kentucky that was a bigger opponent for UConn. Almost every team the Huskies played in the tournament was bigger. “Size can be overrated,” said Carlesimo.

As for experience, much had been made about the fact that Kentucky started five freshmen – but it’s hard to say Kentucky’s lack of experience was a problem when they made it all the way to the championship game. But once they got that far, experience was a key.

“Connecticut’s experience did help them in the title game,” said Carlesimo. “Kentucky was able to overcome their lack of experience in every other game but I think it was a factor Monday night.”

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P.J. Carlesimo (image: NBAE/Getty Images). P.J. Carlesimo is no stranger to March Madness. The veteran basketball coach led Seton Hall University to “the big dance” six times, taking the Pirates all the way to the NCAA Championship Game in 1989. A former NBA head coach, he has also been a head coach and an assistant coach for medal-winning USA national teams, including the legendary 1992 USA Dream Team.

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