Those of you once unfamiliar with the Connecticut Huskies have now probably heard your fair share of what they’re all about — grit, toughness, perseverance, and arguably the best point guard in the country in Shabazz Napier. After defeating Tom Izzo‘s Michigan State Spartans in the Elite Eight, 60-54, the Huskies have advanced to their fifth Final Four appearance since 1999 and a rematch with the Florida Gators, who they beat back in December.
Before we go any further, a quick video flashback to game against the 15th-ranked Gators at Gampel Pavilion:
OK, moving on.
Napier, the American Athletic Conference Player of the Year, has been nothing short of sensational for UConn, as they’ve completed an improbable run to the Final Four in Arlington, and in the process busting President Obama’s bracket:
Sorry about busting your bracket @BarackObama… We have room on our bandwagon if you're interested
— UConn Huskies (@UConnHuskies) March 30, 2014
But success and solid guard play is nothing new in UConn Country
Comparisons to Husky great Kemba Walker, who led the program to its third National Championship in 2011, have been floating around all year as Napier has continued to carry UConn on his back, finding new ways to win and cementing his name among the all-time greats in UConn history. Walker tweeted this out during yesterday’s thrilling will over Michigan State:
Best PG in the country. Shabazz Napier
— Kemba walker (@KembaWalker) March 30, 2014
Real recognize real.
Just for comparison’s sake, let’s look at the two players’ numbers during their road to their respective Final Four runs. In the 2011 tournament, Walker totaled 107 points, 27 assists, and 21 rebounds. In this year’s tournament, Napier has amassed 93 points, 18 assists, and 24 rebounds.
But with the comparisons never-ending, isn’t it time for Napier to be appreciated for what he’s been able to accomplish without Walker. Surely he learned a lot during the one season in Storrs they actually spent together, but after last season’s postseason ban due to NCAA sanctions, Napier could have jumped to the NBA a year early, as Walker had done, but decided to stick it out for his senior season. According to many, it was a wise decision, as he’s improved his draft stock markedly:
Veteran NBA scout to SNY.tv on Shabazz Napier: "First round. Smart, tough, clever, lives for the big moment. Has improved every year."
— Josh Newman (@Joshua_Newman) March 30, 2014
With all that being said, how are the 30-win Huskies consistently an underdog with arguably the best and most clutch guard in America?
The Huskies were the 4.5-point favorite in their second round game against St. Joseph’s but since then, they’ve been nothing but underdogs. Villanova was a 4-point favorite in their third round matchup, in the Sweet Sixteen against Iowa State they were a 1.5-point underdog, and against mighty Michigan State they were a 5.5-point dog. All they’ve done is make those who bet against them pay, as the Huskies have covered in all four tournament games thus far.
So what’s the line for their Final Four tilt with top overall seed Florida?
— Sportsbook.com ® (@Sportsbook_com) March 30, 2014
They’ll play the Gators in the Lone Star State, a state synonymous with national championships for the UConn program. In 2004, they defeated Georgia Tech in the Alamodome in San Antonio and in 2011, they defeated Butler at Reliant Stadium in Houston.
This won’t be, however, UConn’s first trip to AT&T Stadium in Arlington. Back in January, while on their Texas swing of games during AAC play, head coach Kevin Ollie took the team to the site of the Final Four and senior Niels Giffey stored it in his memory bank, saying, “It was a real way to motivate yourself and have a vision of what can lie ahead and what you can accomplish.” Certainly they’ve accomplished more than anyone in America outside Storrs, Connecticut thought they could and would.
And you can’t help feel good for Ollie, himself an underdog throughout his NBA career after spending 13 seasons in the league playing for 11 different teams. He, like this team, has earned everything he’s gotten. When he was named head coach, he was done so with an interim tag but after a few months and some good fall semester grades, he was extended for five-years and just over $7 million dollars.
And he’s captured attention and respect from many around the basketball world, from 13-year NBA veteran Malik Rose…
— Malik Rose (@MalikRose) March 30, 2014
…to the King, LeBron James…
Wanna send a HUGE S/O to my former teammate Kevin Ollie and UCONN on advancing to the Elite 8. Keep it going K.O. #StriveForGreatness
— LeBron James (@KingJames) March 29, 2014
…to Reggie Miller:
— Reggie Miller (@ReggieMillerTNT) March 30, 2014
Ollie has instilled a lot of what he’s learned throughout his career into this UConn team: not getting caught up in the what might happen, instead trusting the process to make it happen. As the pro-UConn crowd at Madison Square Garden chanted, “Kev-IN! OLL-ee! Kev-IN! OLL-ee!,” the head man of the Huskies heeded his own advice while climbing the ladder to cut down the net. “I was really taking my time,” he said. “One step at a time. And that’s what you’ve got to do to get to the top of the ladder. You can’t skip no steps. And the last two years, we didn’t skip no steps.”
As for their underdog status, that’s out of their control. They’ll play their style of game, physical and “predatory” and will go toe-to-toe with the Gators, a team they beat thanks to, you guessed it, Napier’s jumper at the buzzer. They’re the last team to hand Florida a loss and they belong here. They’ve beaten a 10-seed, a 2-seed, a 3-seed, and a 4-seed. Next up is the 1-seed the majority of America is picking to win it all.
It’ll also be the next chance for Napier to reconfirm his legitimacy as the best guard in America and for the Huskies, it’s another chance to expel all the underdog talk.