Connecticut is no stranger to the NCAA Final Four. The Huskies have earned their fifth berth since 1999.
But this team, the seventh seed from the American Athletic Conference, which a year ago was banned from postseason play because of poor academic performance, wasn’t supposed to make it to Arlington.
Not with a young, first-time head coach in his second season named Kevin Ollie. Not after a 33-point loss to Louisville to end the regular season and being swept 3-0 by Louisville and 2-0 by SMU, which wasn’t even selected for the NCAA Tournament.
The Huskies (30-8) got here by beating three of the top four seeds in the East Region, including a 60-54 win over Michigan State on Sunday in the East Regional final.
“These kids are loyal,” said Ollie, who was named interim head coach when Jim Calhoun abruptly announced his retirement in September 2012. “I believe in them. They believe in us. They also believe in what UConn is all about, what they can be successful in if they go through this program.”
Ollie’s interim tag was lifted after the team went 20-10 his first season, a season cut short by NCAA penalties for poor academic performance. Several Huskies bolted for clearer skies before the 2012-13 season, but three juniors, including guard Shabazz Napier, stayed.
“I am so happy for Coach Ollie,” said UConn forward Tyler Olander, who chose to stay along with Niels Giffey and Napier. “He took a job with a team that had nothing to play for last year, but he did not look at it that way. His theme last year was to build for this year. He would tell us to plant seeds for the future. It has paid off and I am happy for him.”
Ollie, 41, who played for 11 teams in 13 seasons in the NBA, including his rookie season for the Dallas Mavericks in 1997, said the one-year postseason banned helped the team bond.
“I thought they did a remarkable job last year, people saying they weren’t playing for anything, but they were playing for everything,” he said. “People saying we were banned, but we weren’t banned from caring for each other, loving each other, making each other better, challenging each other. That’s what they did. They learned a life lesson.”
And they’ve been channeling all of that angst from a season ago into a gutsy tournament run. Napier, an All-American point guard, leads the team with 18.1 points and 4.9 assists a game entering the Huskies’ NCAA national semifinal game at 5:09 p.m. Saturday against No. 1-ranked and No. 1 overall seed Florida (36-2).
The Gators have won 30 consecutive games. Their last loss? A 65-64 loss at UConn on Dec. 2 in which Napier scored the last six points for the Huskies in the final 34 seconds, including the winning jumper as time expired.
Napier, like Kemba Walker, who led UConn to the school’s third NCAA title in 2011 at Houston’s Reliant Stadium, has been the decisive star during the Huskies’ run, averaging more than 20 points a game. Napier was a freshman reserve on that team, playing 27 minutes in the championship win against Butler.
Napier, Olander and Giffey are the first UConn players to make it to two Final Fours. It’s an outcome Napier even thought farfetched, especially after the tumultuous seasons since the ’11 title.
“Tyler always pulled me and Niels to the side and said he wants us to be the first players [at UConn] to get to two Final Fours,” Napier said. “At the time I just [thought] that’s going to be real hard. And for it to be right here, for us to have the opportunity to play in the Final Four, it’s a special feeling.”
Ollie has leaned on his former coach and mentor Calhoun, who pushed for his former player to take over the reins two years ago.
“He’s a special person in my life,” Ollie said. “When all those people doubted Connecticut, the direction it was going, I know he never wavered. We never wavered. We never blinked. We knew this program was still alive and this program wasn’t going anywhere. We were going to hurt last year, but we were still going to be there and be relevant and we were going to play for what was on the front of our chests.”