UConn tradition never wavering, Huskies get back to Final Four

By Jeff Borzello | College Basketball Writer

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NEW YORK -- A year and a half ago, there were questions about the future of Connecticut basketball. The Huskies were banned from the NCAA Tournament due to APR issues, but that was just the beginning of the program's concerns.

Legendary head coach Jim Calhoun had suddenly stepped down, leaving the inexperienced Kevin Ollie as the next man in line. Moreover, the Huskies were leaving the Big East to join a new, less powerful league, the American Athletic Conference.

Would it be the same UConn going forward? Would the tradition remain the same?

Ollie was given the interim tag instead of being named the permanent head coach, there weren't any program-changing players entering the team, and from the outside, it looked like a worrisome time in Storrs.

But on Sunday, it was like nothing ever changed. Madison Square Garden was owned by Connecticut fans -- and players. There was Rip Hamilton and Khalid El-Amin, Ben Gordon and Emeka Okafor, Taliek Brown and Andre Drummond.

More importantly, the March success was back in Storrs.

The Huskies beat Michigan State, 60-54, to advance out of the East Region to the Final Four -- where they will go for their second national championship in four years. It is the program's fifth Final Four appearance in 15 years.

"It's changed a lot," athletic director Warde Manuel said of the past 18 months. "What we haven't changed and what we're not going to change is being UConn and being family."

"It's the same tradition, just a new face," Taliek Brown added.

Much like Calhoun always seemed to do, Ollie has the Huskies playing their best basketball of the season in March -- something that seemed far-fetched when UConn lost by 33 to Louisville in the regular-season finale. While it was only three weeks ago, it's a distant memory now.

And much of that has to do with Shabazz Napier. He went 2 of 13 in the loss to the Cardinals, scoring just nine points. All season long, the story for the Huskies was the same: they will go as far as Napier can carry them. After that performance, there wasn't a ton of optimism.

Now? Well, let's just say to expect the Kemba Walker comparisons to own the headlines next in Dallas. Napier had 25 points, six rebounds and four assists, including three free throws to push the Huskies' lead to five in the final minute. He's averaging 23.3 points in four NCAA Tournament games, and has been unguardable when UConn needs a basket.

"When you have the best player on the court at the end of the game, you're gonna win a lot of games," Calhoun said. "And we have the best player on the court just about every game this year."

Connecticut will be an underdog to Florida in the national semifinal, but that's nothing new for the Huskies. Outside of the Round of 64 against Saint Joseph's, UConn has been the underdog in every NCAA Tournament game thus far.

But we should probably learn not to doubt Ollie and the Huskies anymore.

Although Ollie himself has done it at times.

"It's always in the back of your mind and thinking about certain things, 'Is this the right job? Should I stay in the NBA?'" Ollie said. "And you know what, I can do this job."

He's proven that time and time again over the past 18 months, guiding UConn into the AAC, through an NCAA Tournament ban -- and into the new era of Huskies' basketball.

Even if the new era felt a lot like the old one on Sunday.

"He's a special guy," Calhoun said. "He's always been a special kid. He's like a son to me. He's got all UConn guys around him. That fiber of UConn has not gone any place. We haven't gone any place.”

Peavy (USATSI)
The Connecticut Huskies celebrate their win over Michigan State to reach the Final Four. (USATSI)

Assistant coach Ricky Moore and director of basketball operations Kevin Freeman were both on the 1999 championship team. The other two assistant coaches, Glen Miller and Karl Hobbs, both played for and coached under Calhoun.

That continuity has helped the Huskies maintain the success they had with Calhoun.

“A lot has changed on the outside. But not on the inside," Freeman said. "Coach Calhoun did a great job of keeping it in the family. That kept the tradition going, the bloodline going. This group has solidified itself in the last 18 months."

“As long as we keep making the Final Fours, I don't care what conference we're in," Khalid El-Amin added.

With chants of "KE-VIN. OL-LIE." raining down after the game from the Husky faithful, it's clear UConn has the right man for the job. Within the program, that was always the case.

And Sunday cemented that thought for the rest of the college basketball world.

“We knew before that he was the right guy for the job," Freeman said. "It just took a little while to convince everybody else.”

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