podcast

After voting in Kevin Duffy’s Media Poll of the best UConn players in the Calhoun/Ollie era, the gang (Tyler, Meghan, Peter and Alex) reveals our collective vote & discusses the rationale behind it.

Peter also unveils a wild new series planned for the summer.

WARNING: EXPLICIT LANGUAGE

Intro music by Tetramer | iTunes link

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Apparently the genius marketing strategy the NCAA has used to convince a large portion of the population that extorting free labor from athletes is noble, does not extend to Twitter hashtags. Appearing on ESPN’s Mike & Mike Show this morning, NCAA President Mark Emmert was preparing to answer questions from the common man — who could submit their inquiries by tweeting with the hashtag #AskEmmert.

It did not go well…and actually is STILL not going well. Instead of asking the type of softball questions lobbed at Emmert by the ESPN crew, twitter exploded with mocking inquiries aimed at exposing the hypocrisy of the NCAA. The embedded widget below should give you a livestream of some examples (*NOTE* A Dime Back is not curating the list, it’s auto-generated by Twitter). Feel free to link to your favorites in the comments.


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podcast

We’re back — with rings (figuratively)!

The full crew — Tyler, Meghan, Peter and Alex — convenes to reflect on Storrs’ two newest residents, each a national championship trophy. We also discuss the decisions looming for DeAndre Daniels, Ryan Boatright and Kevin Ollie. Run time is just over 31 minutes. Enjoy!

WARNING: EXPLICIT LANGUAGE

 

Intro music by Tetramer | iTunes link

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Ryan Boatright holds the National Championship trophy (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Ryan Boatright holds the National Championship trophy (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Ryan Boatright had a very interesting 2013-2014 season. In the NCAA Tournament, he showed star potential during UConn’s shocking run at a national championship. He hit big shots, played lock-down defense, and didn’t miss a free throw in the last four games of the season (16-16).

Yet, by the numbers, Boatright averaged 12 points, 2.5 assists and 3.7 rebounds per game during the tournament — almost identical to his season averages of 12.1, 3.4 and 3.5. To take it a step further, a year earlier, during the 2012-2013 season, Boatright averaged more points (15.4), more assists (4.4), shot better from the floor (42.9% vs. 39% this year), and got to the free throw line more often. Watching him on the court, it is hard to argue that Boatright was not an improved player — but those numbers can play tricks on you.

This is the problem with evaluating Boatright as he weighs whether or not to return to UConn for his senior season or to enter the NBA Draft. The talent you see as he blows by a defender, or strips a ball-handler, or throws down a dunk on a fast break, hasn’t translated to the box score — leaving many wondering if it ever will. None of the usual mock NBA draft suspects list Boatright — even as a second round pick.

Most players in that position don’t entertain the prospect of entering the Draft, and it seems obvious that Boatright shouldn’t either.

But that position is held in the abstract. You never know what the specific circumstances are in a young man’s life. Boatright has certainly faced his share of adversity, playing with a heavy heart this past season after the death of his cousin. Perhaps the desire to provide immediate assistance for his family is worth the risk of doing it while collecting paychecks in the D-League, or overseas.

Boatright has also expressed an interest in jumping to the NBA in the past — saying that he planned to make the jump following his sophomore season, but thought better of it due to his poor draft stock.

How much has his stock improved?

It would seem Boatright’s best chance to secure a lucrative future career for himself would be to return to Storrs for his senior season, play a full year without Shabazz Napier overshadowing him, and enter a much weaker 2015 Draft where he’ll face less competition (this year’s Draft is loaded). He will have a full offseason to attend camps, work on his jumper and midrange game, and will get to be the star on a UConn team that should get its fair share of media attention next season following their championship run earlier this month. He would also presumably finish his degree — a notable accomplishment in its own right.

In the end, the best you can hope for with a guy like Boatright is that his decisions are being guided by the right motives. If he decides to take a serious risk by entering the NBA Draft, you hope he is doing so because his family needs him to — or his coach, Kevin Ollie, has been assured by his NBA sources that Boatright will be selected. The other side of that coin is Boatright jumping ship due to the advice of uninformed friends and family, or his own desire and impatience.

Hopefully Boatright makes the decision that is best for him, and for his future. That decision should be to return to UConn.

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2014 National Champion Stefanie Dolson | Getty Images

2014 National Champion Stefanie Dolson | Getty Images

Those of you who regularly read A Dime Back (Hi, Mom!) know we don’t spend much time writing about the UConn Women’s team. And, honestly, I’m a little ashamed of that. I’m a feminist, a former female athlete, and the daughter of a Title IX pioneer. This should be right in my wheelhouse.

I grew up on Rebecca Lobo and Jen Rizzotti. I went to countless games with my best friend growing up (back when season ticket seats were unassigned and first-come-first-served), and the 1995 National Championship run is one of my very favorite sports moments.

But Monday night I watched the game in a bar with a roomful of insane UConn fans living and dying with each shot. Tuesday I watched at a friend’s place, with a roomful of people who weren’t at all worried about the outcome. (Except one. Sorry, Teubner. Notre Dame is still a really good school. Just not at basketball.)

So why the dichotomy? The UConn women are so good, so dominant, that even a National Championship game is just a ho hum experience. I was texting earlier in the day with a friend who was predicting a 30 point win, only as slight hyperbole. And he wasn’t far off. The Huskies dispatched the Fighting Irish in frighteningly efficient fashion, winning by a convincing 21 points. And that included taking out the starters and letting the walk-ons finish the game. In the National Championship. Against an undefeated team. Think about that for a second.

Notre Dame Coach Muffet McGraw said at times it felt like they were playing the Miami Heat. Former Baylor star and athletic freak of nature Brittney Griner said playing UConn is like playing a WNBA team. The Huskies’ preparation, work ethic and ability to play at a high level even when they’re playing the cupcakiest of cupcake teams make them almost otherworldly.

My parents watch the women as religiously as the men. In fact, my dad prefers to watch the women’s games because he finds the men’s games too stressful. And really, when was the last time the women gave us anything to worry about? They’ve basically won the game before they walked out onto the floor.

This isn’t to say I don’t pay attention to the women’s team. I do. When they play any team that might give them a game I watch. I always have an eye on the score when they’re playing. My friends were sort of teasing me about how much I knew about the team. (Really, guys? C’mon. I live in UConn homer land.) But, admittedly, it’s not as much fun to watch them blow out Boston University by 58 points (No, that’s not a typo.) as it is to watch the men go into OT against Memphis. Though, to be fair, I’ll take the 40 points wins of the women’s team over the men’s 33-point loss to Louisville any day of the week and twice on Sunday. That game was painful.

As Peter pointed out earlier this season, blow-out games are, well, boring. I don’t know what Geno does to get his team to play the way they do. It absolutely defies logic. It’s not just getting the best players, because Notre Dame and Baylor get great players, too. Something about this program and how he prepares his team is just on a different level than everyone else. Basically, he’s a genius. And I’m so glad he’s ours.

There is also the argument about how different the men’s and women’s games are. The women have a more old-school style of play. My friend described it as having five Bob Cousys on the floor. There are no tomahawk dunks (Though, Stewie, I know you can dunk. Please, for the love of Jonathan, give us some sugar. I would love it forever.) or alley oops. What we do get is precision passing, flawless defense, and an offense run like a Swiss watch.

The women’s game also benefits from the fact that we get all these players for four years. If Stewie played in the men’s game, she would have been a one-and-done. But we get her for four years. If she doesn’t graduate with four national championships on her resume, I’ll wear a Duke shirt in Gampel.

While I have to acknowledge a difference in the level of athleticism, if you watched Stef Dolson muscle up for that lay-up, get fouled and roar like a champion without fist-pumping, well, then you’re not really a sports fan. Because moments like that are what sports are about. Big Momma Stef worked her ass off for four years to get to that moment and win a national championship. Her accomplishment, and Bria Hartley’s and Stewie’s and Moriah Jefferson’s and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis’s, is no less significant than the men’s. In fact, it’s more so. Because they were perfect.

We’re pretty spoiled here in Connecticut. We expect our women to win. Final Fours? Obviously. National Championships? Ours by divine right. But we shouldn’t be blasé about it. Dynasties end. Coaches leave. So while Storrs, Connecticut is the Mecca of College Basketball we should revel in it. Because it won’t be like this forever.

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Shabazz Napier cuts down the nets (Jamie Squire/Getty)

Shabazz Napier cuts down the nets (Jamie Squire/Getty)

Last November, I was scrolling through the A Dime Back instragram feed. Up popped a picture of UConn’s star guard Shabazz Napier. It featured the young Roxbury, Mass. native standing with Boston mayoral candidate John Connolly. The caption was a ringing endorsement, although Connolly would eventually be defeated by current mayor Marty Walsh.

The next time I was in Gampel following a game, I caught Napier in a quiet moment and offered some sympathy on Connolly’s loss (I didn’t have a horse in the race, but no one likes to lose). Napier politely thanked me, with a cautious look in his eye. Then I told Shabazz that I had seen and enjoyed a video he had made for a Sociology class about other social issues (both the instagram picture and the video have since been removed). Sensing the slight tension in the moment, I asked Shabazz if he wanted to sit down and do an interview — the catch being, we wouldn’t talk about basketball. Napier returned a sly grin — if you’ve seen a television camera catch him late in a UConn victory, you’ve seen the same look –– and said “I do like talking about things other than basketball.”

That conversation happened early in UConn’s season. Before their buzzer-beating win over Florida. Before the tedious push of conference play stretched the student-athletes and sapped them of their free time. Napier and I never did sit down for that interview.

But something interesting did happen. After UConn’s February 15th victory over Memphis, the media swarmed several Husky players for interviews. Napier, as always, drew the most attention. I sat back and listened. Napier answered the questions you would expect — how did you pull off the win? Was this a signature victory? How does this improve the team’s confidence? I hung around with Tim Fontenault of the Daily Campus until the beat guys had their material before sidling up to Napier to ask a different kind of question.

I asked Napier if he thought the NCAA should be covering more of the players’ expenses. I asked if he thought full cost of attendance scholarships would benefit the players who come after him. I didn’t expect his response.

***

“My college experience has been tough,” said Napier. “We don’t have enough money sometimes, and there’s so many rules now that you can’t take money from anybody [to help]. That’s understandable but, when it gets down to it, we make so much money for the NCAA and they don’t give us any money at all. [They] expect us to starve, or expect us not to eat, it’s kinda tough.”

“You’ve got to learn how to save your money. You’ve gotta learn how to do a lot of [other] things that are kind of unnecessary. We come here to get a good education, and that’s really important, but at the end of the day, if I can’t study because I’m hungry, I’m not going to be able to do well in class. And [then] I won’t be able to play. There’s a lot of things that they don’t really take into perspective.”

***

Upon publishing the piece, the reaction was quick, and varied. Without citing any particular party, some lambasted the NCAA for their current policies, some attacked Napier for overstating the issue, and some attacked me for publishing the divisive quotes in the first place.

The remarks struck up a conversation in Connecticut, but a week later, they were all but forgotten. Having seen the backlash that came from publishing the article, I decided not to ask Napier about it again until his season was over. I decided it wasn’t my place to insert myself as a distraction in his season if he wasn’t asking me to. For the rest of UConn’s home season, Napier and I spoke only about basketball.

So imagine my surprise when this weekend’s Final Four coverage was seized with headlines like: “Shabazz Napier: ‘there are hungry nights that I go to bed and I’m starving’”

After our brief conversation in February, and after weathering the relatively-tame backlash, Napier waited until every camera and microphone in sports media were in front of him to drop the same staggering quote.

For the record, there’s almost certainly some hyperbole at play here. While it’s not inconceivable that student-athletes go to bed hungry — think about their schedules, especially on game nights, when the dining halls close, and how tricky it must be to find the time and the cash for grocery shopping — Napier was using inflammatory language to throw an obvious haymaker at the NCAA.

We know this because he also took a shot at the NCAA merchandising: “When you see your jersey getting sold — it may not have your last name on it — but when you see your jersey getting sold and things like that, you feel like you want something in return.” And, on the biggest of all stages, after winning the national championship, standing near NCAA President Mark Emmert, Napier screamed “this is what happens when you ban us.” An obvious shot at the NCAA for their punishment of UConn during the 2013 season.

Shabazz Napier is a very smart man. That much is obvious when you speak to him. Much like on the court, when interviewing him, he sees a move or two ahead. He’s quick to answer a question in a detailed and articulate manner that preemptively answers your follow-up as well. When Napier decided to throw gas on the NCAA, he undoubtedly knew the firestorm that would follow.

CNN, Fox, NBC, the Washington Post, and countless other media outlets have all run Napier’s quotes. The timing coincides with the Northwestern football team’s victory in front of the National Labor Relations Board in late March that paves the way for them to organize a union and collectively bargain with their university for compensation and benefits. Said Napier, “I think, you know, Northwestern has an idea, and we’ll see where it goes.”

While the NLRB decision will have significant long-term impacts on college sports, Napier’s remarks have sparked immediate action. In Connecticut, State Representative Pat Dillon latched onto Napier’s comments and the Northwestern ruling to propose changes to state law that would give UConn student-athletes the option of unionizing in the future. Other lawmakers have joined in. Elsewhere, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has entered the fray, suggesting the league could offer financial assistance to the NCAA to subsidize players staying in school longer. “I think if Shabazz Napier is saying he is going hungry, my God, it seems hard to believe, but there should be ample food for the players,” he said.

Napier’s comments were a veritable kick to the hornets’ nest, and it seems to be working. Earlier this week, I penned an article declaring Napier the most important player in UConn history. The gist being that he guided his university’s basketball program through a very tenuous time, ensuring that it remain the proud institution that its history deserves. Perhaps he’s trying to do the same thing for the sport of college basketball as he exits.

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The 2014 NCAA National Champion UConn Huskies

The 2014 NCAA National Champion UConn Huskies

The UConn Huskies are the 2014 NCAA National Champions.

There are no words in the English language sufficient to describe how much I loved writing that sentence.

And I think one of the reasons it’s so very satisfying is because no one outside UConn Country believed it would happen. 11.01 million brackets were submitted on ESPN.com, and only 0.3 percent (all of whom were presumably in the A Dime Back pool) picked UConn to hoist the trophy. The Huskies were drastically underseeded as a 7. UMass as a 6 seemed silly when the seedings were announced. It’s downright laughable now.

March is always a strange time of year. At A Dime Back, we are unabashedly UConn homers. We wear it proudly. But that means we watch every game, read every story, and actually, you know, do some reporting about the team during the season. We know this team. We know the players. So when the national writers start pontificating about a team they have spent precisely zero minutes watching all year it just brings the rage. In one day I read that UConn can’t run and is weak on defense. What the what? Is there another UConn I should have been watching this year?

No one paid any attention to UConn last year. They were banned from the post season, so why bother watching? Well, in Connecticut, we watched. And we saw a team that worked hard. That took the stairs because escalators are for cowards. We saw a team that played because they wore UConn on their chests. And that means something.

So maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on the The People Who Know About College Basketball (PWKACB). They didn’t see what I saw. But they should have.

In every game, including against St. Joseph’s when UConn was the higher seed, it seemed like the PWKACB were convinced that the Huskies couldn’t win. But they did. The OT win, which went into extra time because of Amida Brimah’s timely put-back and made free throw, was the closest the Huskies came to losing in the tournament.

Then came Nova, who went out to an early lead. And with Bazz on the bench in foul trouble it was up to Boat and freshman guard Terrance Samuel to get the game back. And they did. T-Sam, who earned his minutes by wreaking havoc on defense, got no love from the national press. KO went into the half guaranteeing a win. Twitter scoffed. But he was right. UConn came back from the half and surged ahead. And they never looked back.

Then it was Michigan State and Adreian Payne: big, tough and a shooter on top of it. No way UConn was keeping him out of the paint. Except they did. Payne had to settle for three-pointers as Phil Nolan and Amida Brimah refused to let him into their yard. Even when UConn was losing, and the shots weren’t falling, the Huskies refused to go down. They stayed calm, and they never wavered in their belief that they would win. That’s what experience gets you, folks. Let Calipari stack his team with freshman. I’ll take the veterans any day.

How many times this week did I hear some moron on TV say, “Can UConn beat Florida?” Which, naturally, prompted me to yell back, “THEY ALREADY DID YOU [unprintable] [also unprintable] [definitely unprintable, my mom reads this].”

Kevin Ollie is too inexperienced, they said. He can’t beat Tom Izzo or Billy Donovan or John Calipari. Except he did. The UConn coaching staff drew up flawless game plans, and the Huskies executed to perfection. When Florida went to its 1-3-1 defense, KO adjusted. Ollie, who always looks like he was about run out on the court and start playing defense, did a masterful job guiding this team through the tournament. (NBA peeps, stay the eff away. He’s ours, and you can’t have him.)

All season, my brother and I have been nearly giddy about the fact that this team makes their free throws. Glen Miller stumbled on a YouTube video of a Steve Nash free throw drill: hit as many as you can in a minute. Ollie and his staff adopted it, running the drill several times a practice. Hit 17 or sprint. So they got used to hitting free throws under pressure, when their bodies were exhausted. So making free throws in high pressure situations just became a matter of muscle memory. It wasn’t an accident that this team hit over 90 percent of their free throws at the end of games. It’s why Donovan and Calipari didn’t even bother fouling in the final minutes. What was the point? They knew what we all did: UConn makes all of their damn free throws.

And then there’s the Boat Show. Sometime in the last month Ryan Boatright became a ferocious defender. It’s like Ricky Moore transferred his defensive spirit animal into Boat. Against Florida, Boat made Scottie Wilbekin’s life miserable. Wilbekin didn’t see the lane all night. Which is exactly what Boat intended.

The PWKACB all said UConn’s undersized guards (Boat and Bazz are charitably listed at 6’0” and 6’1” respectively) were too little to stop the 6’6” Harrison twins. But the PWKACB don’t know Bazz and Boat. They don’t know that they’re warriors. They don’t know that they have no conscience on defense, that they don’t get pushed around. And that they don’t back down. Ever. Those two are scrappers. They haven’t been handed anything, not on the court, and not in life. When Boat turned his ankle late in the game, there was never a moment when I thought he wasn’t coming back. An ankle sprain? Please. Boat’s not going out unless his ankle falls off.  And what happened? Experience and toughness triumphed over size, and the Harrison twins looked like kids playing against grownups.

Shabazz Napier is smarter than just about everyone on the floor. He was the best player in the tournament, and ran his team with poise and confidence. But UConn was never a one-man show, and the PKACB did the team a disservice by treating them as such. They kept comparing Bazz to Kemba, and while there is certainly something to the comparison, the 2011 and 2014 teams are drastically different. Kemba did have Jeremy Lamb and Alex Oriakhi, but when Kemba wasn’t in the game, the Huskies were in trouble. This team felt more like, well, a team. There was Niels Giffey hitting clutch threes against Kentucky, and somehow transforming himself into a power forward, rebounding monster against Michigan. There was DeAndre Daniels having a shoot-the-lights-out game against Florida. There was Lasan Kromah and Samuels and, of course, Boat, making their guys so uncomfortable they couldn’t get going.

But even more than that, these guys seemed to genuinely love each other. They talked about it every game, their brotherhood. T-Sam doing the Three Sweep, and everyone having each other’s back. Team chemistry like that is rare. And you don’t win without it.

UConn had a lot of intangibles that none of the pundits seemed to give any weight. Yes, Kentucky had a bunch of freshman who are going to have real NBA careers. Good for them. The Huskies had experience. They’ve been here before. They went through the wringer together, and came out the other side stronger. And you know the Huskies used the non-belief from the PWKACB as motivation. You don’t think we can win? Fine. We’ll show you.

And, maybe most importantly, they genuinely believed they would win. They believed in themselves, they believed in their coach and they believed in each other.

On Senior Night, when Coach Ollie promised to come back in April with a banner, people thought he was nuts. But that belief, that motivation, that faith was rewarded. Because yesterday Bazz was inducted into the Huskies of Honor club. And UConn raised its fourth National Championship banner. Damn it feels good to be a Husky.

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UConnWins

I slept for maybe 2 hours last night, so you’ll have to forgive my lack of clarity and articulateness. It just seemed weird to still not have posted on here after we won our fourth National Championship.

Yes, I said “we.” I know that it has long been passé to refer to the team for which you root as “we,” but I have a very personal relationship with this program, as anyone who watched me unravel during the game last night could attest. As you’re all likely aware (since most of the people who read this are my friends from college), I went to UConn. Not only did I go there, but it was the only school to which I applied. The same holds true for my sister. I’ve been visiting UConn since I was a small child, as it is the alma mater of both of my parents, who met there and fell in love and schmoopy schmoop schmoop (yeah, this is about to get real sappy, so be ready). The first person I talked to after the game (excluding the random hugging dudes at the bar) was my mother, followed by my sister, followed by my father, who gets so tense during these games that he tried to go to bed halfway through, only to be constantly woken up by my hysterical mother. A hysterical mother who once woke me and my sister up after Tate George made some shot against Clemson.

I’ve felt a strong attachment to UConn longer than I’ve understood what college was. I knew Chris Smith and Rod Sellers before I knew Michael Jordan. I’m hardly unique in this regard, as almost any denizen of the Nutmeg State can tell you that UConn basketball is THE sport in Connecticut. Yeah, you’ve got your fans of various professional franchises, but this is our team, not New York’s, not Boston’s.

This attachment manifests in a number of ways. For example, since the first time I filled out a bracket in 7th grade, I’ve invariably picked UConn to win the championship. That year, I picked UConn over Georgetown in the final, including an all-Big East Final Four, with Syracuse and Villanova also making the final weekend. For the second time in four years, this compulsion (and it is a compulsion – I’ve tried to not do it a couple of times, and it’s impossible) has won me a March Madness pool (note for the IRS: all of my winnings this year were donated to Books For Africa).

So I get to brag that, yes, despite all the evidence, I believed that UConn would win the championship. After all, the evidence is right there in my bracket (actually three brackets, but who’s counting?). But that isn’t the whole truth. My wildest dream for this team was to make it to the Final Four, culminating with a close loss to eventual champ Florida in an instant classic. Dreaming of a championship just felt illogical. But somehow, even though I couldn’t quite visualize a championship, I was incapable of acknowledging that. I had to put UConn down to win. There was no logic. It was all in my heart.

See where I’m going with this?

The players on this team believed in themselves and in their coach, even when logic might dictate that they should have had doubts. Kevin Ollie was clearly outcoached this season by Larry Brown and Rick Pitino, making me wonder aloud if he was good enough to get a team to the Final Four. After all, in order to do that, he’d have to get past at least one or two great coaches. Then he went out and beat Phil Martelli, Jay Wright, Tom Izzo, Billy Donovan, and John Calipari, all of whom have won national coach of the year awards (he also beat Fred Hoiberg, a fine coach to be sure, but not with the same resume as the others). UConn got absolutely embarrassed by Louisville in their regular season finale, calling into question if they had the talent to really take on top teams in the tournament. Then they beat, in order, the Atlantic-10 Tournament champion (St. Joseph’s), the Big East regular season champion (Villanova), the Big 12 regular season AND tournament champion (Iowa State), the B1G tournament champion (Michigan State), the SEC regular season AND tournament champion (Florida), and finally, the preseason #1 team (Kentucky). How did they do it? As far as I can tell, they believed that they could, even when they shouldn’t have. None of this made sense, and that made it all the better.

I’m not going to sit here and pretend that I wasn’t absolutely ecstatic over the 1999 and 2004 titles, but the underdog stories of 2011 and 2014 bring a special sort of satisfaction. The Huskies’ first two championship squads featured unquestionable NBA talent, with strong depth and versatility. The 2011 team had Kemba Walker and a lot of question marks. This year’s team merely had a solid lineup with decent depth. It didn’t feature a transcendent talent like Richard Hamilton, Emeka Okafor, Ben Gordon, or Kemba Walker.

Right?

Unlike some people (Meghan, Alex, Tyler), I’m not going to get so caught up in the moment as to say that Napier is the best Husky ever. That being said, what this team accomplished this year, with Napier as the unquestioned leader, was amazing. I’m not sure that Napier’s supporting cast was better than Kemba’s, but this definitely felt more like a team than the 2011 team did. And what a team it turned out to be.

Congratulations gentlemen. You’ll be missed.

 

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National Champion Shabazz Napier (image source)

National Champion Shabazz Napier (image source)

“Ladies and gentlemen, you’re looking at the Hungry Huskies,” shouted the point guard from Roxbury, Mass. “This is what happens when you ban us.” Shabazz Napier, standing on the podium in AT&T Stadium, about to be handed the national championship trophy for the second time in his career, still defiant. Still passionate. Still competing, long after the final buzzer sounded.

In the opus of his magnificent career, Napier dismissed a Kentucky team staffed with players so opposite himself — born stars, anointed in the preseason with championship expectations despite never having set foot on a college campus. Freshmen who, unlike Napier, will never see a senior year. Napier dropped 22 points, six rebounds, three assists and three steals, earning Most Outstanding Player of the tournament and rewarding his university, his teammates and UConn fans with one final exclamation point before he bids Storrs farewell.

Napier’s Huskies entered the tournament with 100-to-1 odds to win it. Every night on ESPN, analysts would pick against them. Then Napier’s Huskies would take the court and win. Always defiant.

In high school, Napier didn’t take classes seriously. As a teenager, Napier described himself as “a clown.” It took an intervention from his mother, Carmen Velasquez, to get him to right the ship. Then, after UConn’s 2012 season, when the poor grades of prior Huskies led to the aforementioned NCAA ban, Napier held the team together on the court, while committing himself to academics in the classroom. He will graduate this spring with a Sociology degree, and has earned a spot on the dean’s list. Always defiant.

What makes Napier’s commitment to UConn so laudable is that he did so as the university walls were crumbling around him. First, the ban was levied. Then coach Jim Calhoun — a father figure for Napier — announced his retirement. Andre Drummond left. Jeremy Lamb left. Alex Oriakhi left. Roscoe Smith left. Napier stayed. With the benefit of hindsight, and a freshly minted championship, it wouldn’t be hyperbole to label Napier’s decision to stay as the moment that saved UConn basketball.

All of which leads us to this grand statement: Shabazz Napier is the most important player in UConn history.

Statistically, Napier leaves UConn in fourth place on the all-time scoring list (1,959). He is third in assists (646), and second in steals (251). He’s the only player in UConn history to amass at least 1,500 points, 500 assists and 500 rebounds. He is obviously also the only Husky legend to win two championships.

Donyell Marshall was UConn’s first star, launching the program permanently into the national spotlight. Ray Allen was the program’s best ambassador, and will be the first Husky player inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. Rip Hamilton shook the perceived curse of the 1990’s and secured UConn’s first title in 1999. Emeka Okafor was UConn’s best player and a star student in 2004. Kemba Walker had one of the best individual seasons in college basketball history, almost single-handedly captaining UConn to their third title in 2011.

All of them built UConn’s basketball castle in Storrs — some the foundation, and some the structure leading to astounding heights. Napier kept that castle from crumbling, and ensured that it will stand for the Husky stars that follows him.

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AP Photo/David J. Phillip

AP Photo/David J. Phillip

In the latest twist in an improbable, if not miraculous, season, the 7-seed UConn Huskies bounced the top-ranked Florida Gators from the Final Four on Saturday evening 63-53. At times this season, when losing to Houston, or being run off the court by Louisville, a chance to play for a national championship seemed an impossibility for the Huskies. Yet, as they continue their march through the NCAA Tournament — and through other powerhouse opponents — Kevin Ollie’s team has found their niché, and found ways to win.

On Monday night, in front of more than 80,000 people in Jerry Jones’ memorial to himself in Dallas, UConn will face either Wisconsin or Kentucky in hopes of securing their fourth national championship. They earned that opportunity by beating Florida (36-3) for the second time this season.

DeAndre Daniels was the offensive star for the Huskies. He led the team with 20 points and 10 rebounds. It was his second double-double of the tournament, pretty amazing considering he only had three double-doubles during the regular season and conference tournament. Florida couldn’t handle his versatility. He buried two three pointers when left alone on the perimeter, posted up smaller defenders, and found himself open under the hoop for lobs when UConn’s guards drew attention up top.

While Daniels carried the weight on offense, it was UConn’s defense that won them the game. Guards Ryan Boatright, Shabazz Napier and Terrence Samuel hounded Florida’s backcourt. Scottie Wilkebin, Florida’s starting point guard, finished with only four points, one assist and three turnovers. Throughout the tournament, UConn has embraced tough on-ball defense as their calling card, and it has guided them within 40 minutes of immortality.

While Daniels has emerged as a dangerous offensive weapon, Boatright has transformed his game into one of lockdown defense and clutch shots, and Napier continues to both lead the team and receive headlines, no one’s stock has risen higher than Ollie’s thus far.

In the last two games, Ollie and his team have executed brilliant game plans that sent legendary coaches, Tom Izzo and Billy Donovan, back to the golf course. He has found ways to mask UConn’s most glaring deficiencies — size and strength — and force his opponents into adjusting for the Huskies’ speed and spacing. All while managing a rotation that hits free throws better than any UConn team in recent memory.

Given the success that Ollie has manufactured in his professional life, none of this should be too surprising, but the speed at which he has elevated himself to the coaching elite is staggering. On Monday night, he will have an opportunity to take it a step further, hopefully while climbing a ladder to cut down the nets.

Notes:

  • Napier had an interesting night. He wasn’t the center of attention that we’re accustomed to, but he played a very solid and complete game with 12 points, six assists, three rebounds and four steals.
  • Niels Giffey was 0-2 from three on Saturday. It’s been a week since he hit a three, pretty amazing for a 50% shooter.
  • Terrence Samuel continues to impress. The word that immediately comes to mind to define his play is “fearless.” He seems completely comfortable with the bright lights, and certainly doesn’t shy away from attacking the rim on offense. He also played tight, stifling defense in his 18 minutes on Saturday.
  • While much of the talk preceding the game centered on UConn’s buzzer-beating upset over Florida on December 2nd, this game was also vindication for UConn’s overtime defeat to Florida in the 1994 Sweet Sixteen. At the time, it may have been the biggest game in UConn history, and the memory of the loss still haunts Husky fans who harbor a grudge against Donyell Marshall for missing some key free throws. Hopefully tonight’s win — if not the four previous Final Four appearances and three national championships — finally helps those people move on.

Up Next:

Number four.

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