STORRS – It’s the most wonderful time of the year, if you’re a college basketball player. So that’s really what it was like around Gampel Pavilion a year ago, around the men’s program, at least. It was as if the holidays were cancelled.
The Huskies waited two years to unwrap their presents, so what did it matter that a No. 7 seed, a trip to balmy Buffalo and a matchup against a tough Saint Joseph’s team was stuffed in their stocking? It’s a “precious gift,” Kevin Ollie said.
So the Huskies did not come out of the bunker whining about seeding, respect. They were surprised at the way the American Conference got hosed, and felt badly for SMU, a team and coach they respect a great deal. But they embraced their own opportunity, as well they should.
Now, in their own words, here’s the stream of consciousness from Kevin Ollie and the players.
“I’m happy with the seeding. You always want to get a [higher] seeding but I’m happy for our team. This is their prize for having a great season, for having a great postseason in the tournament down in Memphis. Now we got to see what we’re going to do with our prize, and hopefully we can go deep in this tournament.
“It’s been a great journey. There were some dark days there, but everybody in life is going to have dark days. I’m just so proud of the guys how they’re staying together and planting seeds. We just keep trying to do that. I was proud of the guys this week and I thought we got better from that Louisville game last week to the last three games that we played. I’m excited for this tournament, I’m excited for them. We’re back where we belong.
“I don’t know what [the selection committee] criteria is, I never know. It’s always a little different every year. I feel bad for Larry Brown, not making the tournament. But I know him, and he’s working right now, getting his team ready for next year. They’ll probably be right back in it.
“Louisville, fourth seed, I mean, you know, that team beat us three times. I think they’re one of the best teams in the country. But seeding doesn’t matter, it’s about what you do on the floor. Hopefully we can go to Buffalo and prove ourselves and hopefully get that first game and we could be playing an old Big East foe [Villanova] if we can get past St. Joe’s.
“I was getting a little worried. Back two years ago, we were like the first one picked. Man, we had to wait a little longer this time. But it was great, knowing what these kids went through last year, just to see your name up there. Going to Buffalo. Warde [Manuel] was back there, I know he had a couple of smiles on his face. It’s going to be an exciting time for these guys and I just can’t wait to step on the court on Thursday and take care of this precious gift we got. I hope they understand that.
“I know Phil Martelli. He plays solid basketball, a nice tempo game. They’re an older group. They have almost five guys in double figures, the fifth guy is like nine points, and Langston Galloway is a great player. He’s shooting about 45 percent from the three-point line and they make almost seven threes a game. But they’re going to play calculated basketball, Phil’s been there for a long time, 300 plus wins there, and it’s going to be a challenge for us to get past them. But we’re ready for it.
“[SJU's big man Halil Kanacevic] It’s a different look, but we’ve played teams like that. Markus Kennedy at SMU is a great passer, our big fellow is passing pretty good, too. Hopefully we can get him up there in assists, too. It’s going to be a great matchup and a great game, but I just can’t wait to get back in the NCAA Tournament.
“I’m so proud of these guys, you all know, I’ve been saying that all season. I’m so proud of these guys and what they’ve done and how they’ve kept this program afloat. Because we couldn’t do it without them.
“DeAndre Daniels, it’s been good. DeAndre’s energy has been up and his touches have been up. We don’t really concern ourselves about his points. We know if he gets touches, if he gets offensive rebounds he’s going to get buckets. I was really proud of the second half we played. I’m not into moral victories, you all know that, but we didn’t give in, we kept fighting, working on what we’ve been working on with our zone offense. And DeAndre is a big part of that, getting open in the four hole, taking his time and making his shot. And then he started passing the ball and I’m telling DeAndre, if you get it to Amida, they got to start worrying about the big fellow and you’ve got more open space in the four-hole. He started doing that and our guards started finding him. So it was a good game plan in the second half and we started playing like we’re supposed to against the zone.
“Whenever he attacks the basket, that’s great. We want that to continue, to get on a nice run here.
“We want to get more ball movement. Get it out in transition again and also rebound. We can’t give up 16 offensive rebounds like we’ve been doing. Just clean u p the rebounds and get out in transition and share the game. That’s a great recipe to win. I love how we’re playing defense, we just have to continue that. And you finish defensive possessions with rebounds. We didn’t do that enough in that Louisville game to put ourselves in position to win that title.
“This is what it’s about, but it’s a process. I don’t get ahead of myself, I take it one game at a time. I’m fortunate to be at a great university, I got great support. I got great people around me that are willing to help me at a drop of a [hat], that’s something great for a coach to have. I’m just appreciative of this opportunity. Everybody knows I bleed blue and I want us to get back up to the top. And for us to get back up to the top we’ve got to win games of this magnitude. This is the first start of this journey. We just want to continue doing what we’re doing, playing the right way
And if we come out – we have enough talent to win, I truly believe that. But we can’t do it individually and sometimes we get off of kilter that way, where we do it individually. When we play together, it’s something special to watch.”
“It doesn’t matter if it was first or the last, I’m always a little anxious, a little nervous. But it was definitely worth the wait.
“Guys like Amida Brimah and Terrence Samuel were confused about what was going on, ‘Just relax.’
“It’s just a good feeling to know we got called. It’s been a while. Guys were asking me how to react, I haven’t been in this for over two years so I’m not too sure.
“It’s just being strong, not just with the basketball but being strong mentally. A lot of times guys don’t look to ready to play and make a lot of costly mistakes when we don’t need it. Guys got to understand that now, more than ever, it’s one-game elimination. This could be it, this could be it for the seniors, this could be it for the season. Just go out there and give it your all. Even if you make a mistake, as long as you make it with effort, coach doesn’t worry about guys who make mistakes with a lot of effort. If guys make mistakes being scared, that’s when he gets on you.”
“The NCAA, they got a hard job. But I was definitely surprised SMU didn’t make it. I thought their collection of work this whole season was good. They beat us twice, got into a lot of battles with Memphis, Cincinnati and Louisville and those three all made it. Hopefully, they get to t he NIT or some other tournament and they’re going to do well.”
“When DeAndre dunked, I said, ‘there you go.’ DeAndre’s a talented guy. Sometimes, something in his own ability that stops him and I don’t know what it is. If I were 6-7, 6-8, I’d be doing that every time. I would enjoy dunking on people. I’m happy to see him do things like that because I know how talented he is. I wish everyone knew how talented he was. For me to be the person on the team that everybody just recognizes – I hate that. I want my teammates to be recognized. I want people to see how good DeAndre is, how good Ryan Boatright is, how good Niels Giffey is, at the end of the day they make me who I am. I wish everyone could see that. To see that, he has to do that constantly and I think he can, but he just gets in his [own] way.”
“It shouldn’t be too much different because you don’t want to change what got you here.
“I remember that game, it was rough, it was rough. I think every time we go into Louisville, whether we’re playing them or not it’s always rough. But I thought to myself, ‘what was I going to do after that game?’ Because it still didn’t hit me that we weren’t going to be in the postseason. It still didn’t hit me. But quite frankly it was like mind-boggling, ‘what should I do now?’ And then I was hearing everybody was deciding to leave and I didn’t know what to do. But I definitely thought to myself, ‘there is always another chance to get out there.’ And I stayed and gave myself the opportunity to do so.
The journey is still in progress. I want to hoist that trophy at the end of the day, I want to get as close as I possibly can to get it. I think at the end of the day when you just set your sights on just making the tournament you forget about why you want to go. Of course, I want to make it to the tournament, but there’s a reason behind that. I want to win the whole time. I don’t want to lose, I’m that competitive just like anybody else.
But it’s definitely a special feeling to get another chance. But you got to take the opportunity at hand and take advantage of that.”
“Now we know our matchup, now we can prepare finally.”
“It’s exciting now. We’ve been planting seeds since we couldn’t make the tournament last year, and now it’s finally here and it’s time to get to work. Everybody was clapping. Everybody’s just ready to get on the floor.”
“It’s been rough for me, at least my three years it’s been real bumpy. Freshman year I was in trouble all the time, then losing in the first round. And then last year we couldn’t make the tournament at all. And now this year, probably the most consistent year I’ve had since I’ve been here. Just knowing that we’re in the tournament and we got a chance to win a national championship is a great feeling.
It’s just being an all-around team, rebounding, executing on both ends of the floor and being together as a team. At the beginning of the year we were at our best, we beat the No.1 team in the country, we beat Florida. If we just get back to our roots, man, just play UConn basketball how we know how to play and play together we can go a long way in this tournament.”