Redemption, this is not. Connecticut was banned from last year’s NCAA tournament because the program was a scholastic embarrassment, failing to reach the minimum standards of a measure known as the Academic Progress Rate. So when Shabazz Napier stood before a CBS camera as he celebrated a national championship and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, you’re looking at the hungry Huskies. This is what happens when you ban us, last year, two years, we worked so hard for it, two years …’’ — well, he shouldn’t expect America to stand in unison and applaud.
Yet in keeping a promise to his mother and returning to Storrs for his senior season, Napier did make a positive statement about academia in a sport that rewards teenagers for using the system and leaving for the NBA. He will take a college diploma and two national titles to the next level, and you suspect he’s considerably more prepared for the pros than the Harrison twins and some of the other Kentucky kids that he and UConn just vanquished.
Kevin Ollie and the “hungry Huskies’’ did more than win the school’s fourth championship. They did us a favor in beating down John Calipari and the one-and-doners, proving in a 60-54 victory that experience is still more vital in the college game than raw talent aiming to leapfrog straight to the NBA. Napier and his fellow guard, Ryan Boatright, will be remembered for dominating the Final Four with their defensive domination, smothering Florida’s guards in the semifinals before using their quickness to harass Aaron and Andrew Harrison into turnovers and erratic shooting. In the end, it was as simple as the UConn upperclassmen hitting their free throws — 10 for 10 from the line — while the Wildcats, in a nightmare flashback to Calipari’s 2008 loss in the national final when he was coaching Memphis — went 13 for 24. Even an APR violator can do the math and realize that Connecticut was the more fundamentally sound and emotionally grounded team. The message resonates strongly as Calipari, who has won just one national title in four Final Four appearances, ships another set of kids to the big leagues. While his program is predicated on players leaving, the Huskies were committed to staying last season when the NCAA ban could have prompted a mass exodus.
“It’s not about going to the next level, it’s not about going to the pros, but playing for your university, playing for your teammates,” UConn’s Niels Giffey said. “And I’m so proud of all the guys on this team that stuck with this team.”
Said Calipari: “We had our chances to win. We’re missing shots, we’re missing free throws. We just didn’t have enough.”
In coaxing a triumphant effort from a team that only a month ago lost to Louisville by 33 points, Ollie paved a new path in coaching history. He isn’t a lifer who toiled as an assistant for years and paid his dues. No, he learned the craft while sitting on NBA benches, playing for 11 teams in 13 years before joining Jim Calhoun’s staff. When Calhoun resigned under pressure in 2012, he timed his departure so that the school’s administrators, with whom Calhoun often clashed, had no choice but to name Ollie as an interim. Who knew that the disciple would blow up the conventional paradigm and continue the program’s championship ways in two quick years?
“Somebody told me we were Cinderellas, and I was like, no, we’re UConn,” Ollie said. “This is what we do. We are born for this. We’re bred to cut down nets. We’re not chasing championships. Championships are chasing us.”
Yes, they are, in all walks of basketball, with Geno Auriemma’s acclaimed women’s team positioned tonight for the rare double — last accomplished, of course, by UConn in 2004. Storrs never has struck anyone as paradise, but it continues to be a hoops hotbed even after Calhoun’s departure and a snub of the men’s program by the power conferences. UConn lost the musical-chairs game and now plays in the American Athletic Conference. Hence, the trash talk afterward from Napier, who had 22 points, six rebounds and three assists as the tournament’s most outstanding player and left two defining visuals.
The cool picture was when he knelt and placed his forehead on the court for several seconds, then began to cry as he cut down the net. The not-so-cool picture was when he shoved Boatright, who wasn’t in the right place on the floor, during a dry spell in the second half. That wasn’t any way to treat a teammate who had turned his left ankle and playing hurt, yet managed 14 points, four rebounds, three assists and three steals. “It was hurting, but we worked too hard and put in too much work,” Boatright said. “I wasn’t going to get a little ankle sprain with nine minutes to go in a national championship keep me from being out there to fight with my brothers.”
Fight, he did. Proving that guard play wins national championships, Napier and Boatright held the Harrison twins without a point in the final 15 minutes. Aaron Harrison, who had hit a legendary trio of shots to win games over the previous week and a half, smelled another opportunity late. “Down the stretch, about four minutes left, I think we were down by four,” he said. “I was thinking it might come down to that again. I wish it did.” Instead, it was Boatright who drained a 15-foot jumper with 4:13 left, raising UConn’s lead to six. How did he deal with the pain?
“I just tied my shoe tighter,” Boatright said. “That’s all you can do when you roll an ankle, just put more pressure on where you rolled it at. The adrenaline and me having so much pride and wanting to be out there just took over. I’m sure once all this wears off, it won’t feel good.”
That could be a while, as the rest of us ponder what just happened the last three weeks. There’s a reason this was the highest-rated NCAA tournament in two decades: The dilution of talent, caused by the one-and-done culture in programs such as Calipari’s, actually led to more parity. The crapshoot effect made for unpredictability and close games that excited the masses and the fans at Jerry World, which showed up 158,682 strong for the two Final Four sessions. College basketball may not be healthy, with debates raging about whether players should be paid significant sums and why the NBA doesn’t require two years of college instead of one. But the NCAA tournament never has been in better shape, despite a reduction in quality. It allows the NCAA to practice greed and not feel guilty about it.
“We all love the confines of a nice, tight arena. That is a great venue for basketball,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said, referring to smaller arenas. “I know there’s some critique about playing in a big venue like this or somewhere else. But the reality is you can get 80,000 people in to watch a game and that’s pretty exciting. There may be people that would like to be in a tighter arena, but not the 60,000 that wouldn’t be there.”
How much fun is the tournament? It even prompted two political rivals, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, to sit beside each other in a luxury box.
No one enjoyed himself more, after the final buzzer, than a coach that wasn’t supposed to be here. Uh, didn’t you lose to Louisville by 33 in March? “I’m glad that happened, because we all got together, we knew what we had to do, the challenge that was in front of us,’’ Ollie said. “And we got better from that. When we got back in on that bus and we got back to practice, I could see the look in their eyes. Dark times are what promote you.’’
As for Calipari, he was denying rumors he’s heading to the Lakers, which he probably planted. “I think all these kids are coming back, so I think we should be good,” he said. It was supposed to be a joke.
I’m not laughing.