Dallas: A Run For The Ages

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.

Chemistry

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.

Road to Dallas: A Fan’s Story of March Madness

Road to Dallas

A Fan’s Story of March Madness

The phrase March Madness is typically used to describe the craziness that ensues when the 64 best teams in college basketball battle for their chance to be a part of history. After attending three Final Fours, this phrase can be extended to describe the scramble that is fan travel. Within minutes of our victory over Michigan State, I received a text from a close friend that he and his family had already booked their tickets to Dallas. Minutes later I had texts from five other friends expressing interest in Dallas. Tickets? Accommodations? Flight vs Driving? Duration of stay? By Monday night flights from Hartford to Dallas had jumped to $620, which after a weekend celebrating UCONN in Manhattan was more than I could pay. As a young alumnus, without the funds to travel as freely as I would like, it was time to get creative. This is what it takes to make the Final Four happen. I am not writing this to prove my fandom, but instead, bring to light the sacrifices young alumni/students make to support their alma mater in the hopes someone who can make this process easier in the future will make a change.

Note: 2014 Final Four accommodations were made possible by a good friend and Husky fan who moved from Storrs to Texas in high school (thank you Kevin Barry!) eliminating one of the more difficult/costly parts of trip.

2014 Final Four Objective: Get to Dallas in the cheapest way possible with time to enjoy Final Four attractions.

Monday, 3/31: Coordinating with friends from Connecticut, Rhode Island, Minneapolis and Houston we begin talking logistics. Ideally we are looking to find flights arriving in Texas on Friday and flying out Tuesday however with everyone in the Northeast looking at the same timetable, other options must be explored. With flights getting more expensive by the minute we look into driving 25 hours to Dallas. With 3 people and a car with good gas mileage, we figure it saves $200 on a flight. However, when work schedules get in the way, that plan is nixed. Next option: fly from Boston to Houston ($170) Friday night then get driven by a fellow Husky fan studying in Houston to Dallas for a 10pm Dallas arrival. Then, fly from Dallas back to Boston ($160) Wednesday morning at 6am (add in $60 for parking at Logan). OR, fly Boston to Minneapolis ($130) on Thursday and drive the 12 hours to Dallas for Friday afternoon arrival. Then, take the same Wednesday morning flight back to Boston. All of these conversations, mind you, are taking place with no ticket security and prices only rising. With student tickets only available to active students and stubhub prices skyrocketing to $320, young alumni don’t quite fit into the Final Four equation. Unable to secure a ticket the search continues…

Tuesday, 4/1: Glued to the phone/computer all day with prices continuing to rise (round trip to Dallas from Hartford up to $700, game tickets at $370) my friend from Minneapolis is told by his supervisor he can either work Final Four weekend or resign. Plans immediately shift to Houston as the cheapest option knowing I will probably need to spend close to $300 on a game ticket to the semifinal alone. But alas! Just as I’m booking my flight to Houston I am able to land a ticket. Around the same time my friend from Minneapolis calls to tell me he resigned from his job and is flying to Dallas on Wednesday (if you know of anyone hiring in the Minneapolis/ St Paul area please email jesse.jaber@gmail.com). With a ticket secured and friends en route to Dallas, my search shifts to Dallas from Houston. Frugality the objective, I used a tactic called hidden city ticketing (see below) to sift through potential routes. When this option returns few results I begin researching flights to Austin ($190), taking UT shuttle to University of Texas ($0) and MegaBus to Dallas ($20). However flights to Austin/Houston were only available from Boston which would incur the $60 parking fee (also a Thursday night on 6th street in Austin would inevitably lead to a large tab). Finally, at 7:00pm Tuesday night I find a round trip flight from Providence to Dallas Wednesday, 4/2 – Wednesday, 4/9 for only $350 and no associated parking costs (thanks mom and dad). 51 hours after UCONN beat Michigan State I had a week long trip to Dallas set for $350. Objective Complete.

Wednesday, 4/2: 63 hours removed from the Elite 8 my road to Dallas begins at TF Green Airport in Providence, RI with an 11:25am flight to Philadelphia then on to Dallas for a 5:00pm arrival. Stay tuned for more March Madness travel stories, Florida preview and updates from Dallas…

Safe travels to everyone who will be meeting me out here and GO HUSKIES!

Husky Nation stops at nothing…

Hidden City Ticketing: buying a one way flight from a small airport (Hartford) to a major airport (LA) with a layover in your destination (Dallas). Then simply get off at your destination (Dallas) while your flight continues on (LA). You can use kayak.com to search routing options by layover city. Also, Dallas/Fort Worth is an American Airlines hub so many flights will connect through there.

Caveats

  • Must book 2 separate one way tickets as your round trip ticket will be cancelled once you miss your connector
  • You must carry on bags or else you will be at the layover destination (Dallas) and luggage will arrive at final destination (LA)
  • Airlines (besides Southwest) do not encourage this tactic so it is advisable to only employ it a few times per airline per year