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Family, pride in what’s been built keep UConn on solid ground

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ARLINGTON, Texas — “We’re going to stand through this time and we’re going to be there for one another, and we’re going to extend everything we can extend to our family making sure that you come back and be with us.”

Those were the words of UConn head coach Kevin Ollie during his introductory press conference. And while they were partly in reference to former players returning to campus to complete their education, they also had a lot to do with making sure those players knew they would be needed to ensure that UConn would remain a power program.

There were many questions the program had to address during that time. The APR sanctions that resulted in a postseason ban, leaving the program with questions of who would be back to lead UConn through the 2012-13 season. The violations hanging over the program stemming from the recruitment of Nate Miles. There was also the issue of conference realignment, with UConn being one of the schools left behind in the race to land a “golden ticket” to one of the newly christened “Power Five” leagues. Add in a head coach who had no prior experience in said role, and there was quite a bit to be concerned about with regards to the future of UConn basketball.

Those fears have been laid to rest over the last two seasons, with Ollie’s Huskies winning 20 games in 2012-13 and following that up with a Final Four appearance this season. The coaching staff and the players, especially a senior class led by guard Shabazz Napier, gets most of the credit as their hard work and loyalty to UConn has allowed the program to embark on a new era in successful fashion.

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But there’s also something to be said for the power of family, with the coaching staff all having experience at UConn as either a player, coach or both. Add in the many former players who continue to return to Storrs, and that has helped the UConn “brand” endure in the face of the uncertainty that threatened to cripple the program less than two years ago. And with regards to the leader of the program, that pride makes the job of “selling” UConn that much easier.

“Recruiting is natural to me,” said Ollie. “Because I’m not making anything up. This is what I believe in. I sat in those same seats, I went to the same classes that [my players] are going to. It’s just a part of me and I love the university, and I want to be here for a long time.”

That aspect of the coaching staff, having members on board who already had a deep connection with the university, helped UConn get through a year in which there were no postseason trophies to play for and the conference in which they’d become a power splintering off into separate entities right before their very eyes.

For some the feeling of powerlessness would take over, resulting in a downward spiral for the program as a whole. That hasn’t been the case at UConn, with the pride in what has been built over the years sparking a refusal to allow that to happen.

“It’s invaluable. I can’t put a price tag on it,” Ollie said when asked about the importance of his staff’s connection to the school, with he and all three assistants having graduated from UConn. “Two of my coaches coached me. Glen Miller coached me my freshman and sophomore years, when I didn’t know anything. Coach Hobbs came in after Glen left and he coached me my junior and senior year. That’s when I really started taking off as a point guard and really establishing myself as a basketball player and a point guard.

“So my coaching staff, I tell them they’re the best in America because they’re young but they’re all UConn guys. They all got their degrees from UConn. It’s a beautiful synergy that we have because we all have that common denominator that we played for UConn. We know what it takes to put that jersey on and the pride that we are playing for each and every night.”

It’s a pride that was first established by Jim Calhoun, who in his time at the school transformed UConn from a program without much of an impact outside of New England to one of the most powerful programs in college basketball. And he’s certainly enjoyed watching his former point guard make the program “his” while also making sure the players understand what’s been built for them.

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“I’m so proud of Kevin and I’m so proud of the guys who coach with him, because they have an integral part in this too,” Calhoun told NBC Sports. “Glen Miller, Kevin Freeman and Ricky Moore, and Karl Hobbs. It’s ‘UConn, UConn, UConn’. And Kevin’s done an incredible job of making sure it’s his team, 101%. His fingerprints are more than evident and yet he’s maintained the past of the program.”

What happens Saturday night when UConn faces top overall seed Florida remains to be seen, with UConn looking to move one step closer to its fourth national title. But if these last two seasons under Ollie have proven anything, it’s that the pride he and his staff have in UConn will continue to motivate them as they look to not only sustain what’s been built but add on to it.

PREGAME SHOOTAROUND: Some conference matchups play out before football

Oregon forward Dillon Brooks, left, reacts after scoring a basket against Utah during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Salt Lake City, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016. Oregon defeated Utah 77-59. (AP Photo/George Frey)
(AP Photo/George Frey)
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GAME OF THE NIGHT: Utah at No. 16 Oregon, 4:00 p.m.

From Rob Dauster’s Weekend Preview:

Utah suffered one of the worst losses I’ve seen in a while on Thursday night, when Brandon Taylor, for some unknown reason, decided to foul an Oregon State player firing up a half court prayer at the buzzer. The Utes, who are arguably the second-best team in the Pac-12, will look to bounce-back on Sunday against the best team in the Pac-12, No. 16 Oregon at 4:00 p.m.

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH FOR:

1. No. 12 SMU will attempt to stay atop the American standings as they travel to South Florida. While the Mustangs won the first matchup between these two teams at home by 14, they’ve dropped their last two games on the road.

2. A few more American contests are going down as East Carolina travels to UConn and Houston heads to Tulsa. The game between the Cougars and Golden Hurricane is especially interesting because both teams are sitting two games back of SMU and trying to make a move on the postseason.

3. No. 5 Iowa continues the soft part of the schedule as they face Illinois on the road. The Hawkeyes posted recent easy victories over Northwestern and Penn State and will be heavily favored again on Sunday.

4. Could be an intriguing game as No. 17 Miami travels to Georgia Tech. Although the Yellow Jackets aren’t a major contender in the ACC, they’ve been tough this season, especially at home. The Hurricanes fell victim to Georgia Tech last season while they were ranked by Marcus Georges-Hunt has to get back on track after a recent slump for that to happen.

5. There is an Atlantic 10 game that will be featured on NBCSN on Sunday: Saint Louis at St. Bonaventure (2:00 p.m.).

CLICK HERE to watch these games on NBC Sports Live Extra Sunday afternoon.

Illinois State ends No. 21 Wichita State’s 12-game win streak

Fred VanVleet
AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki
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Having won 12 straight games, No. 21 Wichita State entered the weekend one of the hottest teams in the country. And with a four-game lead atop the Missouri Valley standings, clinching the regular season title was more a matter of “when” as opposed to “if.” But none of that mattered Saturday night at Illinois State, as the Redbirds managed to hand the Shockers their first conference loss by the final score of 58-53.

In addition to the 12-game win streak, which was second to Stony Brook (15 straight wins), Wichita State also saw its 19-game win streak in Valley regular season games come to an end. Illinois State was the last Valley team to beat Wichita State, eliminating the Shockers in the Arch Madness semifinals last March, and they played with the confidence of a team that believed it could win.

And after a rough first half the Redbirds found a way to come back, erasing a 16-point second half deficit in the process.

Wichita State’s issue in the second half was the fact that they couldn’t make shots. The Shockers shot just 26.7 percent from the field and 1-for-14 from three in the second half, with Fred VanVleet going scoreless and Shaq Morris scoring just one point. And just two players, Ron Baker and Conner Frankamp, managed to make multiple field goals in the game’s final 20 minutes. Illinois State certainly deserves credit for that, as they took away the quality looks Wichita State was able to find in building its lead.

And on the other end of the floor Paris Lee took control of the game during Illinois State’s comeback, scoring 13 of his 19 points in the second half with Deontae Hawkins adding 11 second-half points. Illinois State was even worse from the field, finishing the game shooting just over 27 percent from the field. But they were able to attack the Wichita State defense and get to the foul line, outscoring the Shockers 22-9 from the charity stripe. And in a game in which neither team could get much going offensively, the ability to get points from the line proved to be the difference.

This defeat doesn’t help Wichita State, but did anything really change? Maybe the margin for error when it comes to an at-large bid gets a little smaller with the loss in the eyes of some. But when considering injuries to the likes of VanVleet and Anton Grady in non-conference play, those early season losses are understandable. Saturday was a rough night for Wichita State, but given the maturity and talent on at Gregg Marshall’s disposal the Shockers will be fine moving forward.