As a No. 7 seed, Connecticut isn’t the biggest underdog at the Final Four, at least by the NCAA selection committee’s standards. No. 8 seed Kentucky is.
But don’t be misled. The Huskies, unlike the preseason top-ranked Wildcats, were not on a fast track for success.
Which puts Connecticut ahead of schedule as it prepares to meet Florida in a national semifinal Saturday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The Huskies are back in the Final Four after sweeping past Iowa State and Michigan State in the East Regional at Madison Square Garden last weekend.
It has only been three years since the program’s third NCAA title in 2011, but the Huskies experienced plenty of turbulence in that span.
Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun retired after the following season. The program was put on academic probation, prohibiting UConn from competing in the 2013 NCAA Tournament. Players transferred, including Alex Oriakhi to Missouri.
The Huskies’ conference, the Big East, collapsed. Connecticut aligned itself with other football-playing Big East schools, Louisville, Rutgers and South Florida in the American Athletic Conference, and even that league will lose Louisville and Rutgers for next season.
But Connecticut had a few things going for it, starting with a strong basketball heritage forged by the nation’s best combination of men’s and women’s programs.
There was senior point guard Shabazz Napier, who had won a ring as a freshman in 2011 when he supported Kemba Walker, and now is now mimicking the former Huskies’ hero in this postseason. Napier scored 25 against the Spartans and is a first-team All-American.
And Connecticut had coach Kevin Ollie.
The old sports adage of not wanting to be the coach who follows a legend doesn’t apply here. Ollie, a UConn star in the early 1990s who bounced around 11 teams in 13 NBA seasons before spending two years as Calhoun’s assistant, wanted the job.
Not that UConn had much choice. Calhoun announced his retirement in September 2012. There wasn’t time to scour the nation for a replacement. Still, why bother when the ideal candidate was sitting in the next seat? Ollie was given the job on an interim basis.
“He wanted the change to take place,” Ollie said. “He wanted to keep the coaching tree in the family at Connecticut. He vouched for me.”
In the face of doubters. Ollie heard the whispers.
“Coach was retiring at a certain time just so I could get the job,” Ollie said. “But he always believed in me.”
Health played a role in Calhoun’s retirement after compiling 625 of his 873 career victories in 26 years in Storrs. He had taken three medical leaves of absence in his final decade. Calhoun also knew the troubles were approaching. Best they be faced with somebody who understood the landscape.
“I just felt he was the right time and the right man,” Calhoun told reporters after watching Ollie cut down the nets in New York on Sunday.
Calhoun embraced his former player after the net-cutting ceremony and Ollie was swept up in the moment as Calhoun told him how proud he was.
“I was trying to hold back tears,” Ollie said. “I always want to be tough in front of Coach. He’s a fighter and I get that fight from him.”
Toughness is a hallmark for this Connecticut team. After all the program has been through over the past few years, the Huskies needed to grow their resolve. It has showed throughout the NCAA Tournament, with the Huskies knocking off the second (Villanova), third (Iowa State) and fourth (Michigan State) seeds in the East.
Saturday, the most difficult challenge awaits. Top-ranked Florida is the tournament favorite. Connecticut defeated the Gators earlier this year, 65-64 at home. Napier knocked down the buzzer-beating game-winner and the Huskies served notice that night that the bumpy ride of the previous two years was over.
“It’s toughness,” Ollie said. “We don’t back down. We all have the common strength that bred in our heart, the toughness, the tradition, the respect for putting that jersey on.”