By Andrew Kahn
In college basketball, nothing compares to March, when the conference and NCAA tournaments take place. When the University of Connecticut men’s basketball team learned in June of 2012 that it was banned from postseason play for the following season because of low Academic Progress Rate scores, the carrot at the end of the stick was taken away. The Huskies were punished for the mistakes made by players over the four previous years. While five players left the program, others remained loyal to UConn. “They weren’t banned from loving and pushing and encouraging each other, and that’s what it’s all about,” Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie said. “People were saying they were playing for nothing, but they were playing for everything.”
Seniors Shabazz Napier, Niels Giffey, and Tyler Olander, the class that held the team together, helped UConn win the East Region last weekend to advance to the Final Four. The Huskies will play No. 1 overall seed Florida on Saturday in Dallas.
When asked about their decisions to stay, the players stressed loyalty. Not just theirs to the school, but the school’s to them. “My sophomore year I didn’t play the way I was supposed to. I wasn’t a great leader, and I felt like I owed a lot to the university,” Napier said this past weekend at Madison Square Garden. “I felt like they stayed loyal to me and I wanted to stay loyal back. When you have that trust in someone and trust in the university to always have your back, if you run out on them, I don’t think that’s fair.”
Napier was a freshman on the 2011 UConn team that Kemba Walker carried to a national championship. The next season, a talented squad went 8-10 in the Big East and bowed out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The following summer brought news of the postseason ban. UConn’s players could either transfer (only the rising seniors wouldn’t have to sit out a year at their new school) or stay and play for something less glamorous than a trophy. Despite the mass exodus—Andre Drummond and Jeremy Lamb left for the NBA; Alex Oriakhi, Roscoe Smith, and Michael Bradley transferred—the Huskies finished the season 20-10 (10-8 in the Big East), with impressive wins over Michigan State and Syracuse.
Napier’s scoring average increased from 13 to 17 and his shooting percentages jumped across the board; he’s improved even more this season and is drawing comparisons to his former mentor Walker. Giffey struggled with his shot last year, but with no added pressure of the postseason, he worked through it. This year, he was the top three-point shooter in the American conference, hitting at 49 percent.
Said Ollie of his upperclassmen: “It takes a lot of character to keep believing when nobody else believes in you—when people on the outside are saying, ‘You should leave the school,’ and they stay for the right reasons.”
Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler told the team he inherited in 1969 that “Those who stay will be champions.” Many players couldn’t deal with his aggressive coaching style and quit, but those who stayed won the Big Ten. Ollie may not have made such a guarantee to his players in 2012, but their commitment to UConn has paid off. They may technically need two more wins to prove Schembechler’s motto correct, but after the Huskies cut down the nets at the Garden on Sunday, good luck convincing anyone of that.
Andrew Kahn is a contributor to CBS Local Sports who also writes for Newsday and The Wall Street Journal. He writes about college basketball and other sports at AndrewJKahn.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn
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