STORRS, Conn. (CBSNewYork/AP) — UConn has overcome academic sanctions, player transfers, a coaching change and a switch in conferences to make it back to the Final Four.
Do not call it a comeback around coach Kevin Ollie or his predecessor, Jim Calhoun.
Because, frankly, they’re not surprised.
“Connecticut wasn’t going anyplace,” Calhoun said this week. “It’s not the first time we’ve had bumps in the road. They come in all different ways.”
The Hall of Famer, who guided the Huskies to three national championships, was quick to point out that UConn’s last title came just three years ago.
But what transpired shortly after had many wondering whether Connecticut would topple from the top of the basketball world into obscurity.
Calhoun retired just before 2012-13, a season in which the program was banned from the tournament for not meeting NCAA academic standards. The school replaced him with Ollie, an assistant with no prior head coaching experience.
Star center Andre Drummond and guard Jeremy Lamb had left for the NBA and several other players had transferred after the sanctions were announced.
The Huskies were left out of the expansion of the ACC and the Big Ten in favor of rivals Louisville and Rutgers. The seven Catholic schools also left UConn’s conference and took the Big East name with them.
But despite all that, that Huskies went 20-10 in 2012-13. The team also excelled off the court, earning what it says will be a perfect 1,000 when the latest academic progress numbers are released later this spring.
“We motivated ourself with the sanctions,” guard Shabazz Napier said. “We were motivated with people doubting us and it worked out well.”
Ollie said that season made much more of a statement about Connecticut’s future than this year’s run to the Final Four.
“We took care of business, and we took care of business on the court, won a lot of games,” Ollie said. “Then we came into this season with one goal in mind, and that’s improve and get back in the tournament. And I think we did that, and we’re playing our best basketball.”
Any concerns players had about the program falling off the map ended when the former Huskies point guard was chosen to succeed Calhoun, Napier said. They had worked with him for the two seasons he was Calhoun’s assistant, trusted him, and his hiring gave the program a sense of continuity.
“You could feel the vibe,” Napier said. “I never thought he was going to be a bad coach, I knew he was going to be a great coach. So, there was no worries for me there.”
The Huskies bounced back after losing games at Houston and SMU to open their conference season, and were able to come back after trailing in several other games, including by nine points to Michigan State in the second half of the regional final.
Calhoun notes that Napier, Niels Giffey and reserve center Tyler Olander also all played roles on the Huskies 2011 national championship team. That experience coupled with the overcoming adversity in the years since may give UConn (30-8) an edge over favored Florida (36-2).
“They know what it takes,” Calhoun said. “They know what the feeling is, the journey.”
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