1984. In a scenario not quite Orwellian, but unusual nonetheless, the Connecticut Huskies have become the first seven seed to reach the Final Four since Virginia did so thirty years ago, being only the second seven seed to accomplish such a feat. The Huskies have defied history–and the selection committee–and have earned Kevin Ollie his first Final Four appearance as a head coach (in his third season).
The road to Arlington, Texas, was not an easy one for UConn to travel. They began with a game against a ten seed, St. Joe’s, who gave them a tough battle–arguably their toughest in the tournament. That game was the closest UConn has come to losing all tournament, as they were one Amida Brimah rebound away from being sent packing in the round of 64. No matchup with Villanova, no upset of a championship favorite Michigan State squad, no Final Four appearance. It was that close.
After yesterday’s upset over the Spartans, many finally had their eyes opened to how good this Huskies team is. People knew they had Shabazz Napier and people knew that Kevin Ollie was a rising star, but not many truly expected UConn to make a deep run. Michigan State was arguably some of the only true competition in the East Region, as the top three seeds (Virginia, Villanova, and Iowa State) were relatively weak in comparison to the other regions. Unfortunately for UConn, their surprise run to the Final Four was overshadowed by the unexpected run by the Kentucky Wildcats, a team who has defeated three of last season’s Final Four teams in their previous three games.
A few factors have contributed to this run by Connecticut and a few of those factors have been expected. For one, Shabazz Napier has been electrifying. Averaging about 23 points per game in the four tournament games so far, Napier has torn up opposing defenses. Between his ability to knock down a step-back three, rebound well for a guard, pickpocket opposing players, spread the ball around, or nail free throws, Napier has proven to be arguably the single-most important player to his team of all the four remaining squads (Frank Kaminsky is a close second). He’s been doing this for three seasons and it’s astounding to think of what he would have done in the tournament the past two seasons had UConn been eligible to compete.
Last 5 coaches to reach F4 in first NCAA trip: Kevin Ollie (14), Shaka Smart (11), Bill Guthridge (98), Steve Fisher (89), Larry Brown (80).
— Patrick Stevens (@D1scourse) March 30, 2014
Another contributing factor was the location of the Iowa State and Michigan State games. Both of those games were located in Madison Square Garden, which is essentially a home game for the Huskies. Despite the fact that the Garden hadn’t hosted an NCAA Tournament game in 53 years, UConn has played in the building very often, be it in the NIT or Big East Tournament. Everyone remembers the 2011 run that Kemba Walker and the Huskies went on, winning five games in five days. Everyone remembers the six overtime game that UConn ultimately lost. And now, everyone remembers Shabazz Napier and his Final Four run, earning it in the building that has given Connecticut–and the college basketball world–some of its most historic moments.
Finally, UConn has been able to get to the free throw line. And when they do get to the line, they are extremely efficient. I realize it seems like a lackluster thing to say about a team, as free throws should be a given for elite teams, but UConn has simply been phenomenal. Especially since we’ve been shown this weekend what it looks like when a top team misses free throws in a close game (looking at you, Louisville). In four tournament games so far, Connecticut has gone 81/99 from the line, which is a superb 82%. They’ve done a great job of getting to the line and ensuring that they make the most out of their free throws.
Connecticut has a tough road ahead of them. They have to win two more games to bring home the school’s fourth national title, but it first will take overcoming a Florida team that has been red hot since they last lost on December 2nd to . . . UConn. This Final Four game is a rematch of an intense regular season game in Storrs, CT, that ended with a Shabazz Napier buzzer beater. Both teams have evolved in their own unique ways and Florida’s team chemistry and skill has no doubt progressed since then. If the previous few rounds have been any indication, we are in store for an exciting conclusion to this season.