The spectacular rise, fall and rise again of the UConn Huskies
NEW YORK — It took Jim Calhoun 27 season as a head coach to make the Final Four (13 at Connecticut). Kevin Ollie has done it in just two — and in the first season his team was eligible for the postseason.
Calhoun built a powerhouse in Storrs, winning three national championships in 26 years, the last in 2011. But he left the program in what Ollie himself has described as "a dark time."
So when the seventh-seeded Huskies returned to the Final Four with Sunday’s 60-54 win over No. 4 Michigan State, it was the culmination of three years of dizzying highs and daunting lows. Let’s look at how the Huskies got here:
Before Shabazz Napier, there was Kemba Walker. The 6-foot-1 junior had one of the greatest postseasons in history, first dominating the Big East tournament and then earning Most Outstanding Player honors in the NCAAs. UConn won 11 straight postseason games, starting with five wins in five nights in the Big East Tournament, garnering a 3-seed in the NCAA Tournament. The dramatic run was capped with a 56-55 win over No. 4 Kentucky in the national semifinal, followed by holding upstart Butler to a record-low 18.8 percent shooting in a 53-41 victory in the championship game.
In 2012, UConn had a roster that included the following: Jeremy Lamb, Andre Drummond, Shabazz Napier, DeAndre Daniels, Ryan Boatright, Alex Oriakhi and Roscoe Smith (who averaged a double-double at UNLV this year), and they finished with a 9-seed in the tournament and lost in the round of 64.
Calhoun, meanwhile, who’d had health problems since 2003, took his third leave of absence in four years in February to have back surgery. He returned in less than a week but fractured his left hip five months later.
The Huskies had been in trouble with the NCAA in 2011 over recruiting violations, but gotten off cheaply enough: Calhoun was suspended the first three Big East games of the 2011-12 season and the program received scholarship reductions for three academic years, recruiting restrictions and was forced to disassociate with a booster.
But in June 2012 the NCAA dropped the hammer with a postseason ban when it ruled the team was in poor academic standing. When that news came out, Drummond and Lamb left for the NBA Draft and Smith and Oriakhi transferred.
A little more than a year after winning a national championship, the Connecticut program was a mess.
All that was left were guys who either A) Really wanted to be at the school (Napier, Boatright) or B) Had no place else to go.
Napier, Niels Giffey and Tyler Olander all were freshmen on that 2011 title team. Napier said Sunday that Olander has regularly gotten those three guys together and said he wanted them to be the first players in UConn history to win two championships. But the way things were in the fall of 2012? That looked like a serious long shot.
"It’s gonna be real hard," Napier said he thought then. "It’s gonna be definitely difficult."
The Hall of Fame coach retired Sept. 9, 2012, about a month after fracturing his left hip falling off his bike. Calhoun had taken a leave of absence the previous season to have back surgery and had battled health problems for almost 10 years. Assistant coach Kevin Ollie, a former Husky and NBA player with no head-coaching experience, was named interim coach.
It wasn’t like Ollie didn’t have reservations. How could he not? As much as Connecticut meant to him, he was walking into a nearly impossible situation.
Ollie divided the fan base: Half loved him because he was off the Calhoun tree (and hence, united the past, present and future of the program), the other half wanted UConn to go out and get the biggest name available (a Shaka Smart type, for example).
"It’s always the back of your mind and you’re thinking about certain things," Ollie said Sunday. "Is this the right job? Should I stay in the NBA?"
But Ollie convinced Napier and Boatright to stay in Storrs when they easily could have bolted with the departure of the legendary coach who recruited them and the postseason ban.
"He is one person I can say deserves this," Olander said of Ollie. "He took a job with a team that had nothing to play for last year, but he did not look at it that way. He wanted to bring the team to where we are at right now."
The Huskies won their first game under Ollie, beating Michigan State in the Armed Forces Classic, and Ollie was a given a five-year extension on Dec. 29, 2012. UConn finished tied for seventh in the Big East at 10-8 and was banned from postseason play, but the Huskies went 20-10 overall with quality wins over Cincinnati, Syracuse and Notre Dame, and peaked at No. 21 in the polls.
There isn’t a single school that got screwed more by conference alignment than the Huskies did when the Big East broke up in 2013.
You’ve got a program which has won more titles over the past 15 years than anyone, has a women’s program that is unbeatable, and it’s relegated to what amounts to a mid-major league in the American Athletic Conference.
That led UConn fans to fear for the future of the program: Was their run at the top done? Could they still get big-time recruits, and win big (the only way any UConn fan under 35 is used to winning), playing in what amounted to Conference USA?
Ollie and the Huskies won their first nine games of the season, including one-point wins over Maryland, Indiana and Florida. Napier had the highlight with a buzzer-beater giving the Gators their last loss before they ran off 30 straight wins to get to the Final Four.
The Huskies lost by four at Houston to end the season-opening run but avenged it with a 37-point win at home in January and also avenged a road loss to Cincinnati en route to a 24-7 season and third-place finish in the AAC.
The Huskies looked nothing like a top tourney team on March 8 when they lost to Louisville 81-48. A week later in the AAC tourney they lost to the Cards for the third time this season.
"I don’t even want to remember that," Ollie said Sunday. "It was a down time. In down times, what you do is you bond together as brothers."
UConn was seeded seventh and opened with an 89-81 OT win over 10-seed Saint Joe’s, then started knocking off the high seeds: No. 2 Villanova (77-65), No. 3 Iowa State (81-76) and No. 4 Michigan State (60-54).
And the Huskies did it with the guys who hung around. Giffey is the team’s top 3-point threat and Olander gets minutes off the bench. But it was Napier who led the way with 25 points and willed his team to a victory Sunday, making every big shot down the stretch — including three free throws after getting fouled by Keith Appling with 30 seconds left to put UConn (30-8) ahead 56-51.
After the game, Ollie and Calhoun met in an embrace, much the same way they did Friday night when the Huskies won in the Sweet 16. Calhoun congratulated Ollie then. This time, the protégé did the talking.
"He always believed in me from Day One," said Ollie, who played for Calhoun and was his assistant coach for two seasons. "I thank him to death for it. That’s what I told him in his ear: ‘Thank you for believing in me.’"
Nothing was given to him. Just like nothing was given to these Huskies. Ollie remembered that as he climbed up the ladder at MSG to cut down the nets.
"It’s a great time when you can get on that ladder, but I was really taking my time," Ollie said. "One step at a time. And that’s what you got to do to get up top of the ladder. You can’t skip no steps. And the last two years we didn’t skip no steps. We took one step at a time."
Yet it still feels like he and UConn are way ahead of schedule.
FOX Sports’ Aaron Torres contributed to this report.