They were freshmen when UConn won the 2011 National Championship. While others jumped ship in the tumultuous two years that followed, Shabazz Napier, Niels Giffey and Tyler Olander stayed the course. The three were there to usher in a new coach, rode the rocky tide of conference realignment and stood tall while the men’s basketball team endured a one year postseason ban. Now, as the regular season of the American Athletic Conference winds down, this group hopes to leave the University in the same way they were christened, as National Champions.
There are parallels between this group and the 2011 team. Napier has the goods to pull a Kemba Walker, with Ryan Boatright playing the role of an older and more seasoned Shabazz. Sharp-shooter Giffey and junior Forward DeAndre Daniels provide the perimeter presence and small forward penetration that defined Jeremy Lamb’s game.
Coach Kevin Ollie firmly believes this team has the pieces to make a run into April saying, “I’ve got confidence in my guys. I’ve got confidence we’re going to win every game. If you don’t believe you’ll never have anything. When I came here I believed in myself and I believed in my coaching staff. No matter what the situation is. We’ve got a chance just like every other team, so, why not believe. That’s the only way you’re gonna have a blessing is if you have faith.”
If the backcourt conjures memories of that last National Championship team, the front leaves many observers wondering if that’s where the comparison ends. Alex Oriakhi (8.7 rpg in 2011) may have left as a much maligned player, fairly or unfairly, but his presence in the front court during that magical run was as unmistaken as it was necessary. That squad, behind Oriakhi, while not overwhelming, held its own on the boards, while this year’s edition has taken it on the chin at times. As great as player as he is, Napier (5.9 rpg) from the guard spot can’t realistically be the leading rebounder on a team with National Championship aspirations.
Giffey laid out what UConn (24-7, 12-6 AAC) needs to do to make that journey to the AT&T Stadium in North Texas in April saying, “For one, we definitely need to rebound. We’ve been playing good defense but we need to finish possessions with a rebound. We’ve been playing good defense for twenty or twenty-five seconds but then give up an easy layup. We need that last final (Defensive stop) to close out teams. And on the offensive end we need to get a little better balance in our inside-out game and get our bigs involved and give ourselves some open shots.”
The 2011 squad hardly looked like contenders, slugging it out in the Big East Conference, dropping seven of their last eleven regular season games heading into the Big East Tournament. That Jim Calhoun led squad ended the regular season with 21 wins, a .500 conference record and were pegged as the eighth seed in the conference tourney before winning an historic five straight in five days to capture the NCAA automatic bid, beginning their ‘Road to the Final Four’ as a three seed.
All indications are that the top dog to emerge from the AAC, once the Conference Championship plays out, will probably, at best garner a three seed. Upsets and unpredictability though have been the name of the game in men’s basketball the last two weeks with Top 10 titans such as Duke, Arizona and Kansas suffering losses and Syracuse, at one time 25-0, in a virtual free fall, having dropped four of its last five. Unceremonious early exits by Top 20 teams in conference tournament play could open the door to a two seed to the AAC Championship victor heading into The Big Dance.
On the keys to playing into April Napier boiled it all down, saying, “Staying in the game. Keeping our composure. There will be times when we’re going to mess up, but, if we continue to stay together and keep our composure we’ll be fine.”
For UConn that’s all well and good provided it takes care of business in the Conference Championship. With all the good feelings with gutty wins over Cincinnati and Rutgers this past week, a fair amount of doubt has been cast following the 33 point steamrolling at the hands of Louisville Saturday in the regular season finale for both teams. The loss was UConn’s worst in 22 years and was the second time this season that the Cardinals manhandled the Huskies. With the loss UConn drops into a three way tie with SMU and Memphis and will be the fourth seed by way of the regular season sweep of the Tigers and having dropped both regular season matchups to Larry Brown’s Mustangs. Ollie’s group will have its work cut trying to take Memphis for the third time this year on its home court. The Huskies ended the season 3-5 against the top four teams in the AAC and will tip off Thursday at 9 p.m. in the inaugural American Athletic Conference Championship at the FedExForum in Memphis.
Ollie didn’t mince words, “We are going to win the National Championship. That’s the only thing I believe.”
For that to happen there had better be a generous helping of grit, muscle and moxie sprinkled in with that faith.