Men's College Basketball: Huskies, Wildcats chasing validation
One short year ago, Kevin Ollie was a first-year head coach with little chance to validate his selection as Jim Calhoun’s hand-picked successor at Connecticut.
The former Huskies point guard and Calhoun assistant admits he was dying inside not to be a part of the 2013 postseason, by virtue of NCAA-levied postseason ban. But the promise of a much brighter future helped Ollie keep his program intact.
“It takes a lot of character to keep believing when nobody else believes in you,” Ollie said as the Huskies prepare for Saturday’s national semifinal against top-ranked Florida. “These kid are loyal. 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 do go through this program.
“I thought they did a remarkable job last year, people saying they wasn’t playing for nothing, but they was playing for everything. People saying we was 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.”
Ollie said he didn’t strain to convince All-American point guard Shabazz Napier, a freshman on UConn’s national championship team four years ago, to return to Storrs. It was, in fact, Napier who told Ollie he would be back to finish what he started.
Napier scored 25 points against favored Michigan State and was named the Most Outstanding Player in the East Regional. There were times when he seemed to will the Huskies to points, pushing the seventh-seeded program all the way to Dallas, where a rematch with Florida awaits. It was Napier who nailed the game-winner to sink the Gators on Dec. 2, the last time Florida lost this season.
UConn fans are hoping Napier can deliver an encore effort to that delivered down the road in Houston by Kemba Walker in 2011.
“I just want to go out there and be myself,” said Napier. “He took that team to a national championship and I want to do the same. But I’m going to do it a different pathway. And I’m going to be myself.”
Just as Napier and the Huskies are coming of age at the right time, the underdog on the other side of the bracket is Midwest Region champ Kentucky. John Calipari’s latest iteration of college cameo-playing freshman won what many identified entering the NCAA Tournament as the toughest of four regional paths to AT&T Stadium.
The No. 8 seed Wildcats start five freshman — four prep All-Americans — but also bring a McDonald’s All-American pick off the bench. The embarrassment of riches didn’t lead to the dominant year Calipari projected. That doesn’t mean this crew of Wildcats can’t scratch its way past Wisconsin.
“It’s a process,” Calipari said. “You can’t skip steps. Part of that process is failing fast, sometimes failing often. The final step to all this is you surrender to each other, you lose yourself in the team, and you understand less is more. But that really takes time when you’re playing seven freshmen in your top eight, and each of them scored 25 points a game in high school, that you must do less, and that would mean more for you.”
The postseason truly began for the Wildcats, Calipari said, with a third loss — by one point — to Florida in the Southeastern Conference championship game. Since that defeat, Kentucky knocked off three of the top four seeds in the Midwest — Wichita State (1), Louisville (4) and Michigan (2).
Calipari said the “change for the better” was adapting to a team approach, and letting go of individual-focused agendas. He shoots down suggestions that he’s just benefiting from an assembly of prep studs that would downplay his role in bringing the team to this stage.
“If you want to be on a team where the coach only highlights one or two guys, you better be one of those two guys. If you want to go there, go,” he said. “That’s not how it is here. Every game is the Super Bowl. You’re scrutinized because people are attacking me, so you’re going to get scrutinized because they want to come after me.
“What we’re doing has never been done. You can’t do this. So you’re getting that hit. If you can’t deal with all that, don’t come here. That’s a heck of a sale, isn’t it?”