The Connecticut basketball team that plays St. John’s at Madison Square Garden Wednesday night would be worthy of an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament in any other season.
The Huskies would also be in the mix for a high seed in the Big East Conference tournament in any other season. They might not have enough talent to win that conference tournament but no one can doubt they would put their best effort forward.
But, of course, this is not any other season. It has been well documented that the NCAA banned this UConn team from postseason play because of past academic transgressions at the school. As a result, the presidents of the Big East told the Huskies they are not welcome to join the party at Madison Square Garden next month when the conference determines its automatic qualifier.
So UConn (15-5, 5-3 Big East) will make its final trip to MSG tonight and battle St. John’s (14-8, 6-4) in a game (7 p.m., ESPNU) that will play a small part in determining the Big East regular season championship. And that is the only realistic goal UConn could put on its chalkboard at the start of this season.
Big East players live to play in the Garden. UConn won’t be back after tonight. The fairness of it all has been argued over and over. The bottom line is that it stings. It’s the painful reality for a team and a coaching staff that has been winning against all odds.
“The closer it gets to March Madness, the madder I get,” guard Ryan Boatright said. “I know a lot of teams are going to be happy they don’t have to play us when it comes to the postseason. We could be real scary.”
Boatright told reporters Tuesday that he isn’t fond on watching ESPN these days. Too many of those “Journey to the Tourney” commercials.
The chip on UConn’s shoulder has gotten bigger in recent days. With 10 games left and that March 9 conclusion to the season creeping closer, the Huskies are doing some remarkable things.
Ollie talks about playing through tough times and UConn gets outrebounded 55-24 but still beats Providence 82-79 in overtime.
“I always tell the guys to push to the second mile, because there’s not a lot of traffic on that second mile,” Ollie said. “That’s what they did. They pushed, they pushed, they pushed. We came out victorious.”
Ollie tells his team that sometimes they’ve got to dig deep. And then Shabazz Napier scores 11 of UConn’s 17 points in overtime and the Huskies defeat USF 69-64 despite shooting 30 percent from the field.
“It feels great that we’re able to win in the different styles we’re winning in,” Ollie said. Sunday. “Facing adversity and having the struggles and getting through the struggles and being a team.
“And I’m so proud of the guys in the academics too, in the classroom. It’s basketball 15-5 but they’re taking care of other things. The guys are doing a wonderful job. What our staff is trying to stress is togetherness. That circle is greater than the individual. And we’re taking that to heart. Everybody is stepping up. Win or lose, we are connected.”
The academic issue has weighed heavily on this team. Classroom performance was an enormous part of Ollie receiving a contract extension at the end of December. In his first season as a head coach, Ollie is absorbing the burden of turning things around in more ways than one.
Before Sunday’s game against USF, Napier, R.J. Evans, Niels Giffey and Leon Tolksdorf were honored for their honor roll performances in the fall. The crowd at Gampel Pavilion offered a standing ovation. Parents of the players tell me they can see a huge difference. They know what Ollie is doing, they see the difference in the response from their sons, and they tell me they are extremely happy.
The chemistry on this team is so much better than last year as well. The players get along and they haven’t complained about the ban – they just use it for motivation. Right now, at 5-3, they are just one game out in the Big East loss column. Syracuse is 7-2. Marquette, which beat UConn in overtime, is 6-2. Louisville, the preseason favorite and a former No. 1 in the nation, is 6-3.
“I’m enjoying the ride,” Ollie said when asked about being 15-5. “It’s a wonderful season. I doubt if we’ll have another team that’s going to face being banned from the postseason, being banned from conference play [Big East tournament]. And for them to do this, it’s just remarkable.”
|Big East tournament at MSG|
The RPI is an overused tool when determining NCAA tournament bids, but fans relate to the numbers after all these years. In the RPI released by the NCAA on Monday UConn was No. 23, up from 28 last week.
The RPI simulation updated daily by ESPN has UConn at 22 with a strength of schedule rated 23rd in the nation. Both of those numbers are higher than Kansas State, Oregon, Georgetown, Oklahoma State, San Diego State, North Carolina, Creighton, Missouri and Pittsburgh – just to name a few of the teams that are either consider a lock for the NCAA field or on the bubble.
Ollie told me recently that he checks the RPI standings and will pass along the results to his players from time to time. Judge those numbers any way you want. The point is that Ollie has done a remarkable job of turning a negative season into a positive. And the players, some of whom played on UConn’s 2011 national title team, deserve credit for sticking with the program when others left, then buying into everything Ollie has established as a new structure.
Jim Calhoun’s first season at UConn ended with a 9-19 record, 3-13 in the Big East. Cliff Robinson and Phil Gamble were declared academically ineligible at the start of the second semester and that team won only three of its last 10 games. Different circumstances, certainly, but worth a comparison.
Roy Williams, a Hall of Fame coach like Calhoun, began his career at Kansas in 1988-89, the season after Danny Manning led the Jayhawks to a national championship. But after taking the job, Williams learned Kansas would spend that first season on NCAA probation and banned from defending the national championship.
Williams had nine scholarship players and they used the ban as motivation, much the way the Huskies have this season. Kansas began the season 13-1 and climbed to No. 16 in the Associated Press poll. Eventually injuries and bad breaks took their toll on the Jayhawks. There was an eight-game losing streak and Kansas finished 19-12. It was the only time in 15 seasons at Kansas that Williams, now head coach at North Carolina, didn’t lead the Jayhawks to the NCAA tournament.
But Williams will always remember the way that team responded to him.
“Those guys gave me a chance,” Williams said. “I came in and had never been a head coach. I was not a household name even in my own house. But those kids sat back and said, ‘Let’s do what he says.’ ”
That’s exactly where Ollie is with this UConn team right now. The final 10 games of the season will be very interesting. There’s a good chance the Huskies will finish with 19 or 20 wins. Who knows? Maybe more. Maybe less.
No one ever imagined that type of success this season. But more important than any victory total is the tone that has been set. Ollie and the Huskies have defeated the negativity and established a new direction for UConn basketball.
When March 9 rolls around and the season ends, that should be remembered by UConn fans. Listen to Ollie’s words.
“This team is never going to be forgotten – by the fans and by me, especially – for what they endured and the struggle they endured,” Ollie said Sunday. “They’re very gifted. With them not even being involved [in the infractions] and for them to play like this, I’ve got a special group. I’ll never, never forget them.”