ARLINGTON, Texas -- He started every fall with the "zig-zag drill," a simple exercise where ballhandlers zigged and zagged down the court while defenders couldn't use anything but their feet to stay in front. It wasn't the only reason Jim Calhoun's teams at UConn were routinely great on the defensive end, of course, but it was part of their foundation, their culture, as he built a program that bullied its way into the nation's elite.
That drill has remained part of UConn's identity through the transition from Calhoun to Kevin Ollie, and basic as it may be, Calhoun has seen its importance during the Huskies' unlikely run to Monday's national championship game.
And now it's Kentucky's turn to see if they can do what Michigan State and Florida couldn't: Get by the chain of defenders UConn has thrown at every elite ballhandler in this tournament.
"We live and die on defense," Ollie said after UConn's 63-53 victory against the Gators. "Hopefully everybody understands that."
It's a pretty fundamental thing in basketball, maybe the most fundamental of all. For all the talk about game-planning or experience or size, sometimes it just comes down to this: Can you stop the guy with the ball from getting where he wants to go?
That's why UConn, a team that tied for third with Memphis and Southern Methodist in the American Athletic Conference, has suddenly become a defensive juggernaut in the NCAA tournament. And that's why the Huskies, for all their perceived (and real) shortcomings this season, have a legitimate chance to add a national title to the three Calhoun won (1999, 2004 and 2011).
With Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright just eating up opposing guards on the defensive end in this tournament, the question Kentucky will have to answer is whether guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison can do enough of what they need to do offensively to beat the Huskies.
UConn made Michigan State a jump-shooting team. UConn turned Florida point guard Scottie Wilbekin into a non-factor. And if UConn makes Kentucky a jump-shooting team, they'll likely head home with the title.
"They have turned into a great defensive team," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "I think that was probably missing for a good portion of their season. They have really been able to defend at a high level.
"I think it all starts with Boatright. He does a great job really pressuring the ball. And like Scottie said, even when you go by him, they turned us, they flip balls, they slapped balls out of our hands, they got on the break, they got us to take tough shots. There's not many guards we have played against that have kept Scottie Wilbekin out of the lane. These guys kept him out of the lane."
How ridiculous has UConn's defense been? It held Florida to 19-for-49 from the field, Michigan State to 18-for-46, Iowa State to 32-for-69 and Villanova to 18-for-51.
With the exception of the Iowa State game, defense like that gives you a significant margin for error in a one-and-done tournament setting to overcome other flaws.
Whatever your guards do best, that's what UConn is trying to take away. And with so much of Kentucky's offense in this tournament coming from the Harrisons' ability to get the basket, create and try to get to the foul line, UConn won't have to just be as good guarding the ball as they have been all tournament, but helping and rotating, too.
But as UConn showed throughout this tournament, if they get you out of your offense and you resort to driving 1-on-1, it will be a long, tough slog to get points.
"We just wanted to be relentless, make them uncomfortable," Ollie said of Florida. "We wanted to challenge every dribble, every pass. We played tenacious defense. We played relentless defense. It's not always perfect all the time, but we're going to play 40 full."
In a rather interesting twist, Kentucky caught two offensive-oriented opponents in the Elite Eight and Final Four in Michigan and Wisconsin, who couldn't really guard them in the halfcourt. Louisville was better in the Sweet 16 but woefully undersized.
Playing against guards like Napier and Boatright will be a whole different experience for the Harrisons. But Kentucky has an advantage, too, with its array of frontcourt players. And as Calhoun pointed out, what really got UConn going in this tournament was opening with teams in Saint Joseph's, Villanova and Iowa State who weren't big and intimidating in the post.
But the way the Huskies beat Michigan State and Florida showed that they can deal with teams that have post presence, too.
"That's the way we scouted that team," forward Niels Giffey said. "They're really strong inside with (Patric) Young and (Will) Yegute and guys who can post up well, and we were just trying to make them play out side and take contested shots."
That, of course, may not be the answer either. After winning their last four games in this tournament by a combined 11 points — and making a whole lot of contested jumpers along the way — it may very well be that this is just Kentucky's year.
But UConn's experienced enough, quick enough and aggressive enough defensively to make life a little more uncomfortable for the Wildcats' young guards. If the Harrisons step up to that challenge and can penetrate that defense, Kentucky will complete the improbable national title run after a mediocre regular season. If not, the Huskies have a great shot to send Napier off with a national title.