The University of Connecticut has won the 2014 NCAA National Championship. 4 months ago, after knocking off Florida in December, I had a conversation with Skip Olander about a spring trip to visit his son (my friend) in Lithuania. We had previously discussed plans to check out the European Basketball scene but after the Florida victory, plans changed. We already had big wins under our belt on neutral courts (Indiana/Maryland) but this was a statement win. My first post, and motive behind starting this blog, originated from what I saw during the Florida game. In that post, I predicted a return to the Final Four referencing elements of the winning formula that would ultimately lead us to Dallas. Let’s see how these keys played out in the 2014 Final Four:
Games will be won/lost in Shabazz Napier’s hands
Shabazz was the Most Outstanding Player of the 2014 NCAA Tournament and for good reason. In the National Championship game he dropped 22 points/6 rebounds/3 assists and knocked down clutch shot after clutch shot to discourage any Kentucky run. The most important plays his hands made however were not the 3 pointers swishing through the net but rather the rocket passes they flung to Deandre Daniels and swarming pressure they put on opposing guards (more below). Deandre could not have gone off for 20/10 in the semifinal without his point guard actively looking to get him involved with the right plays at the right time. Shabazz Napier not only made all the right plays in the 2014 NCAA tournament, he made winning plays.
Throughout the season one of my biggest concerns was the Boatright/Napier relationship on the floor. Too many times it became a back and forth between the two with the rest of the offense stagnant, watching. I worried role players would not be able to establish themselves or get into any type of sustainable rhythm. North Texas is a testament to the substantial progress this team has made throughout the year. Boatright was a pest defensively and his one-on-one move in the closing minutes on Julius Randle was nothing short of Kemba. Most importantly? He played within himself and let the game come to him yet was not afraid to rise to the occasion when the moment called. Giffey also came up big with 10 points/4 rebounds vs Florida and two huge 3’s vs Kentucky. The Nolan/Brimah duo got it done against much larger centers (more below). Olander came off the bench to provide relief. Lasan Kromah pulled down 5 rebounds in the championship game. Terrence Samuel gave big minutes. Yes, UCONN breeds NBA players but most importantly, UCONN breeds WINNERS.
Ability to win close games
How do you win close games? Foul shooting. Continuing with the trend of the tournament, in two Final Four games we shot a combined 87% (20-23). Our two primary ball handlers- Boat and Bazz- were a perfect 12-12 from the line. That is how you win close games. Kentucky? A measly 54% (13-24). When the opponent knows putting you on the line is an automatic 2 points it adds pressure to late game situations that young teams (Kentucky) typically mismanage (they did). Defense. UCONN held both Florida and Kentucky to under 40% with stifling on ball pressure resulting in a barrage of 3’s instead of working the ball inside. In short, we forced them out of their game plan. Boat/Bazz played with unmatched defensive intensity harassing the potent Florida backcourt of Wilbekin/Frazier into just 7 points on 3-12 shooting. Kentucky will beat us though right? With James Young/Harrison brothers standing at 6’6, they will see over our smaller defenders and feed the post, right? Wrong. Boat/Bazz (with help from Kromah) held the Harrison brothers to just 15 points on 6-16 shooting and combined for more steals than the Harrison brothers giving up over a foot in height. When NBA scouts knock Shabazz for his size (as they did Kemba), remember this game (he turned out just fine).
Will to battle for every rebound
If you were to squish together Daniels/Brimah/Nolan into one person you still could not equal the girth of Patric Young. The same could be said for Julius Randle. How then were we able to out rebound two physically imposing teams analysts projected to destroy us inside? Team Rebounding. Everyone crashed the defensive glass in Dallas. At 5-10 Ryan Boatright ripped down 6 rebounds vs Florida, Daniels 10 and Giffey 4. On Monday, given their tough defensive responsibilities, Boat/Bazz combined for 10 rebounds, Kromah 6 and Brimah 4 looking like a stick figure defending the NBA-ready Randle. Where there may have been a potential weakness in a one-on-one matchup – aka Young or Randle- even they were no match for a one-on-five. UCONN recognized a potential weakness and worked as a collective unit to aid a disadvantaged teammate. The result? A 62-60 rebounding advantage for the weekend.
Faith in Leadership
The most important element on the list. If you ever doubted Kevin Ollie you are a moron. That was not the question. I mean damn, players stayed with him/top recruits gave commitments even with the uncertainty haunting the basketball program. Yes, Shabazz Napier had already won a National Championship yet he was still an unproven leader. Similar to a catcher in baseball and quarterback in football, the point guard in basketball assumes leadership of the entire team. But, just because you assume leadership does not mean you are automatically instilled with leadership qualities. That comes with time, with effort and with faith. Niels Giffey told reporters that after the loss to Louisville in the AAC Tournament Finals, Shabazz promised the team they would cut down the nets in Texas. Giffey’s response? “I looked into his eyes, and I really believed him.” That is faith.
What to take away from 2014
Statistics/rankings/matchups are glorified in college basketball and debated fiercely among analysts and fans alike. It dominates the media and ripples throughout the country causing one team to be viewed as a “favorite” while another a “Cinderella” based on seeding. Taking a look back at UCONN’s run, there are many statistics attributable to our national championship- free throw percentage, defensive field goal percentage, rebounding margin- but the only statistic that accurately describes the 2014 National Champions is not quantitative, but qualitative: faith. Faith in an idea, faith in ability, faith in a coaching staff, faith in teammates and faith in being a small part of a bigger picture. Kevin Ollie instilled a sense of faith in his players from Day 1. Shabazz Napier got it-he stayed, Niels Giffey got it-he stayed, Tyler Olander got it- he stayed, and now, their hands are heavier for it. You see, faith is contagious. Faith allowed me to follow the Huskies around the country as funds were running thin, faith allowed my friend to quit his job for a week in Dallas and faith allowed the UCONN Huskies to win the 2014 National Championship. So now, the next time a sibling, friend, analyst or Kentucky fan calls us a Cinderella respond: we’re not a Cinderella, we are UCONN.