BUFFALO, N.Y. – Wrapping up a long day at the arena with some notes, quotes and thoughts.
A recurring theme in the UConn locker room – and in any sport one does get a much better feel for a team by working the locker room – was the opportunity lost two years ago against Iowa State. That’s very much on players’ minds.
“We were talented,” Ryan Boatright said, “probably the most talented team in the country. But the chemistry wasn’t right. We weren’t together as a whole.”
That team had two lottery picks, Andre Drummond and Jeremy Lamb, and two other standout big men in Alex Oriakhi and Roscoe Smith. But the pieces just didn’t fit together.
“I wasn’t the leader my sophomore year that I should have been,” said Shabazz Napier, who was in his first season as the starting point guard.”
Boatright was in and out due to the NCAA reviews, and Jim Calhoun was in and out due to the suspension and the illness. The team faded in February and was blown out by Royce White and Iowa State in the tournament. “You lose in the first round,” Boatright said, “and then we couldn’t play last year, it sticks with you.”
That, more than the perceived slight of the No. 7 seed, will be UConn’s motivation against St. Joe’s Thursday night. Here is our main advance for the Courant.
Here are some excerpts from UConn at the podium:
It’s just a great opportunity for us. People see obstacles that we went through, I see opportunities. We did a great job. My guys stayed loyal. We thought we’d be an NCAA Tournament team last year, and now we just took over that same mindset on into this year.
It’s always a players’ game. They kept this university afloat when everybody else was jumping off the bandwagon. I appreciate Shabazz. I appreciate my seniors. And I appreciate everybody having that same mindset that we’re champions.
Everybody said we were buried, but we were just playing it. We’re going to keep going forward.
Love this university, and I love this time of year. Being a coach, I also played in this tournament three years. I also had an opportunity to be an assistant coach two years. It’s just an excellent time for us, and we’re very excited to be on the stage once again.”
Of course I’m aware of our history [in 2004], but this is another year, another process, a different team, a different coach. But one thing I always have, I do have Coach [Jim Calhoun] right here with me in spirit. He’s here on the trip.
So any time I need to run some things by him, he’s always there for me. So it’s a great opportunity for us to have a great run, but we’re not looking ahead of ourselves. We know it’s a process. It’s game by game. I’m concentrating on St. Joe’s, and then after that, we’re going to cross that bridge when we get there.
[Becoming head coach is] a lot of pressure. You get suggestions, but you’ve got to make the final decision, and I take that with the mindset that I have to make the decisions. I have to be stern in my decision, and I can’t waver.
I always believed in myself. I always believed in my university, and that never stops. I think that activates your power as a program when you believe.
I could never fill Coach Calhoun’s shoes. I could never do that. But I could be the best Kevin Ollie I’m going to be. I never went in there like I’m going to fill those shoes and try to be Coach Calhoun. I’ve got to be Kevin Ollie.
I kind of say it like we’re from the same fabric, but we’ve got a different suit. But we’re cut from the same fabric, though. I want to play defense. You know, I want to rebound. I want to be the aggressor on the basketball court.
At the end of the day, I want University of Connecticut to be the best university in the country, and whatever I have to do to do that, I’m willing to do.
I want my players to sacrifice and understand what it means to be a brother to each other. Hopefully we can do that, and hopefully we can continue the tradition. I really love this team. I’m going to miss the seniors. I think we’re going to go out on a special ride this year.”
[St. Joe’s Halil Kanacevic] is a unique player. He kind of reminds me of Marcus Kennedy with SMU, where they run their offense through them. He’s leading them in assists. He’s an extraordinary player. He can play on the house side, but he can play inside too.
We’re going to have our work cut out for us. Galloway is an exceptional shooter. He’s not just a stand still shooter. He can go off the bounce. He can step right and left. They’ve got other players. [DeAndre] Bembry is a great freshman that’s kind of their energizer. He can get it off the rebound and push it.
And what makes them tough, four guys can get it off a rebound and push in and start their fast break because everybody is saying walk it up, team’s slowing down. I don’t see it. I see them getting out in transition. They’re selective in their transition. But our first thing is getting back in transition and making them play against our half?court defense.
Then they’ve got a great motion offense that Martelli, Coach Martelli has been using for years, and getting the ball from side to side. We’re going to have to stay packed in our principles and play great basketball. We’ve got to be at a level five, and that’s a championship mindset, championship effort. We’re going to have to have a great mindset going into that game and a great attitude.
I think our team is real focused right now, and hopefully we can get a good performance out of everybody that’s able to play tomorrow.”
St. Joe’s is a great team, a great opportunity for us. I think for us not playing last year and us watching Selection Sunday and not seeing UConn going in, it just was fuel for the fire.
I think they’re not taking anything for granted because they know a special moment can be taken away from them. They want to thrive, and they want to make sure they’re on top of their game.
I think they’re focused. They’ve been focused throughout the whole season. And we’ve been through some ups and downs. It started at the beginning of the year when we lost to SMU and lost to Houston and SMU back to back. They’ve just been a resilient group. They’ve always stayed together. They love each other, and that’s the most important thing.
I think the two most important things for a great team is that they listen to each other, they respect each other, and they care about each other. I think this team epitomizes that even in the difficult times. They always kept faith in each other. I think that’s a great attribute for any team.”
I always tell them, and I’ve told you before, they coach me too. I’m just not a guy that’s coaching them. They coach me. They let me know when different things happen and on the court, also on the back of the scenes.
And Niels and Shabazz has been great leaders for us. I think that leadership character that they both have stands strong when the times get tough. That’s when I need them the most, when times get tough. Then also, when we have big wins, can we come back and practice and still have that same mindset and still have that same focus?
Those guys have been rocks for me. Niels, man, if anybody’s got a problem with his playing time, it should be Niels. I mean, he could come to my office, and I probably can’t say anything, like Niels, you’re right. He’s been a great player for us. He’s been selfless.
If I have him play 20 minutes or if I have him play 30 minutes, he just said, Coach, what’s next? Give me my assignment, and what’s next? You love a player like that.
And then Shabazz has kind of matured over his four years. Everybody knows his story, and he’s just matured into a great leader. That’s what you’re in the business for. You’re in the business to see young men mature like that. It’s more than just being on the basketball court and making shots. It’s about them becoming men. That’s what I want them guys to leave when they leave campus, they’re better men, not just better basketball players.
Both of those two guys, those two players exemplify that.
“We definitely accepted [Kevin Ollie as head coach] very fast because he was a part of the UConn tradition. He played here, and he was coaching under Coach Calhoun. So we definitely accepted him fast.
It was just a big step for him because when Coach Calhoun was here, Coach was always yelling at guys, and Coach Ollie was the guy to put you on the wing and comfort you. He had to switch that role.
It was quite difficult for him in the beginning, but we all understood what he needed to do to become as good as he is now. We understood that, and we move forward from it.
For him, I think it was quite easy because he had the players that believed in him. He had players that was with him when he was an assistant coach. He didn’t just jump into a new position, not being with the team before. He was definitely with us beginning of my freshman year. So it was much easier for him.
It was just a great opportunity for him to discover how well he is as a coach, and he’s proven a lot so far.
… I mean, I didn’t watch the tournament [last year]. I was watching other things. I didn’t really think about watching the tournament. It definitely sucked because I wasn’t a part of it. But it fueled a lot of motivation and hunger to get to where we’re at now. Not only for myself, the whole team took that as a sign of staying hungry.
You know, there’s always going to be another opportunity, and we just roll with it. Now this is the opportunity that we have now against a great team tomorrow. We got to show up and just play as hungry as we wanted to play last year when we couldn’t play.
Hopefully, we’ll be on the winning end of that game.
I think every team’s different. There are definitely some guys that are definitely similar, but they’re just a tough A?10 team. There are no slouchers in the NCAA Tournament. There’s 68 teams make it, and not one of them guys are slouches, because they’re here for a reason.
We know St. Joseph has great guards, great big guys, got a rich tradition, a great coach. So we got to show up and show them a lot of respect because they deserve it. We’ve just got to play the best basketball we can possibly play.”
“[Having won a championship in 2011 is] definitely going to help us to just prepare for the games and focus on the games. Just put all that stuff that’s around us to the side.
Obviously, we’re going to enjoy the attention by the media, but as soon as you step on the court, you have to put that aside. We’ve been through that whole process. So we definitely benefit from that. We’re going to pass that on to everybody who hasn’t been here, just showing them how focused you have to be on what you got to do on the court.”
An AP story this week, citing a report from the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, stated that UConn would not be eligible for the 2014 tournament under the new APR standards being phased in, because its four-year average is 897, three points short. However, UConn responded by noting the program’s two-year average of 962 is well above the minimum 930 and thus would be eligible. Next year, UConn will have a four-year average of 936, figuring in the perfect 1,000 score of it has reported for 2012-13, and will be eligible for 2015. Bottom line, UConn doesn’t have APR worries at the moment.
Heard from former UConn great Toby Kimball, via e-mail today. We weren’t able to hook up yesterday for my story on his 29-rebound game against St. Joe’s in the 1965 tournament. Kimball said, “I really didn’t want my UConn carrer to end!! Win on Thursday and I can die happy.”
Rip Hamilton’s game-winning shot in 1998 against Washington is one of 16 “pick up moments” fans can consider in an Enterprise Rental Car promotion highlighting great NCAA moments. Click here for details.
Jim Calhoun is still the center of attention wherever he goes. The most-interviewed man at the arena today. … Of course, Phil Martelli’s grandson wasn’t there. Here is the notebook for the Thursday Courant.
And some great Steve Dunn pics from the day are here.
So it’s not an old Big East Tournament, but we are in New York and UConn, Syracuse and Villanova are all here. Jeff Jacobs spent some time around Syracuse, here is his take for the Thursday Courant.
What happened to the “one-and-done” phenomenon? Doesn’t seem like the majority of compelling players in this tournament are seniors? Took a look at seniors for a front page story in the Thursday Courant.
Finally, our capsule look at the matchup.
Get a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow is game day, March Madness is here.