The Connecticut Huskies spent New Year’s Eve losing at Houston. It was their second loss in four games and their American Athletic Conference opener.
No one was in a good mood. Things weren’t headed in the right direction after a 9-0 start. They weren’t exactly brimming with confidence during their New Year’s Day flight to Dallas to play SMU on Jan. 4.
Second-year coach Kevin Ollie had planned a quick sightseeing tour for the team a few weeks before. He wanted to give something to his players, something they could see for themselves and visualize later.
Ollie brought the team to AT&T Stadium on the evening of Jan. 2, the day before Missouri and Oklahoma State met in the Cotton Bowl.
“That was when we weren’t really playing good basketball and struggling,” UConn forward DeAndre Daniels said.
Ollie wanted to remind his team of the destination it was shooting for, the dream of every college basketball player: the Final Four.
“Guys, if we just keep working hard and listen to me, we’re going to be here playing in front of our Husky Nation and be here for the Final Four,” Ollie told his team as they gawked at the enormity of the stadium, the giant video board and the never-ending tunnels and rooms that surround the bowels of the building.
“He did it to motivate us,” guard Shabazz Napier said. “He wanted us to feel the atmosphere, even though there was no one there. Looking around at the empty seats and envisioning people there rooting you on. We realized once we got on the bus and talking with each other that we could do this if we work hard.”
The light didn’t magically come on, however, for the Huskies. They lost a day later at SMU to drop to 0-2 in the AAC.
“We really had to get our mindset right again and bounce back from tough losses,” guard/foward Niels Giffey said. “It was just a move to give us a look ahead and some type of visual of what we could accomplish if we really wanted to win. It was kind of fun to imagine yourself on the big TV up there. That was pretty impressive.”
Guard Ryan Boatright added, “We knew that we had to get back on track and pull everybody back together and this was going to be the start of it. We knew coach was bringing us here to lift our spirits.”
It didn’t hurt that Ollie, who was born in Dallas, is a huge Cowboys fan.
“I don’t know [if it worked],” Ollie said of the tour. “They liked seeing the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders locker room.”
Ollie, who played at UConn in the mid-1990s, never had a similar trip as a player.
“I wanted them to understand we could be here. But we have to work hard. We can say we want to be here, but if you don’t bring the work each and every day, it’s not going to happen. I just wanted them to visually see it and think about it, especially when we were in the down times and we’ve been there. Hopefully, we could get back.”
The Huskies (30-8) regrouped and kept those visions of Final Four glory and AT&T Stadium in the back of their minds. They made it back, of course, and meet No. 1 overall seed Florida (36-2) at 5:09 p.m. Saturday in the NCAA national semifinals.
That moment in early January now seems prescient to the players.
“Just the belief he had in us and never giving up, even though we were struggling at the time,” Daniels said. “And we’re finally here, and now it’s just time to take care of business and finish it off.”