Tuesday, September 16, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Returning Huskies leading the way

Kevin Ollie (white shirt) gathers his team during a practice before the Final Four. In his second season as coach after taking over for Jim Calhoun, Ollie has the Huskies two wins from a fourth national title. (RON JENKINS / Fort Worth Star-Telegram)
Kevin Ollie (white shirt) gathers his team during a practice before the Final Four. In his second season as coach after taking over for Jim Calhoun, Ollie has the Huskies two wins from a fourth national title. (RON JENKINS / Fort Worth Star-Telegram)
ARLINGTON, Texas - They could have left, gone someplace new to get a fresh start. No one would have blamed them.

The iconic coach who recruited them was gone. Playing in the NCAA tournament, the carrot for every player, was not an option, at least for another year. Some of their teammates had already left, to the NBA and other schools.

For the five who stayed, leaving was never an option - and the best thing that could have happened to UConn's basketball program.

"I'm glad these guys believed in the program, believed in me, but most importantly believed in each other to stay, to fight through the tough times," UConn coach Kevin Ollie said Friday from AT&T Stadium in North Texas. "Now they're reaping the benefits."

UConn (30-8) is back in the Final Four, three years after winning the program's third national championship.

It's been, at times, a dark ride.

Coach Jim Calhoun, a fixture in Storrs since 1986, retired just before the 2012-13 season. UConn was ineligible for the NCAA tournament at the end of that season for failing to meet NCAA academic standards. The Big East also was falling apart, leaving the Huskies scrambling to find a home.

The confluence of events led Alex Oriakhi, Roscoe Smith and Michael Bradley to transfer. It helped hastened a move to the NBA by Jeremy Lamb and Andre Drummond.

The roster shrinking, the prospect of playing in the postseason gone, more players could have left, all but decimating the program.

Instead, Shabazz Napier, DeAndre Daniels, Ryan Boatright, Niels Giffey, and Tyler Olander banded together, decided they weren't going to abandon what they started.

Despite tempered expectations, UConn climbed the polls after opening with nine straight wins, including a 65-64 over Florida, the Huskies' national semifinal opponent on Saturday night.

After scraping past St. Joseph's in their opener, the Huskies have strung together an impressive list of wins - Villanova, Iowa State, and Michigan State - to reach the Final Four for the third time in six seasons.

They're here because of the players who stuck it out.

Kentucky vs. Wisconsin. They play the same game, though they come at it from opposite sides of the court.

Kentucky has a coach labeled a renegade, a rotating stable of McDonald's All-Americans, and sky high expectations every year. Wisconsin has a coach who has stayed firmly in one state for three decades, a lineup filled with juniors and seniors, and an aw-shucks attitude about its first trip to the Final Four in more than a decade.

They meet Saturday in the national semifinals - the One-and-Done Wildcats (28-10) two wins from the program's ninth national title and the Badgers (30-7) making their first trip this far in the tournament since 2000.

"Frank Sinatra, wasn't that the song? We did it our way?" Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. In his 13th season at Wisconsin, Ryan is at his first Final Four at this level after winning four national titles at Division III Wisconsin-Platteville.

Associated Press
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