One of the biggest surprises of the 2014 NCAA tournament was unofficially written off as a contender as recently as three weeks ago.
It was March 8, the final day of the regular season, and Connecticut went to Louisville looking to gain some momentum heading into the American Athletic Conference tournament. Instead, the Huskies limped out of the KFC Yum! Center with a 33-point loss and a lot of questions.
Coach Kevin Ollie told reporters after the game that UConn was a "bad-coached team," one that wasn't looking at a very good seed in the NCAA tournament. Harsh words from a coach in just his second year, and the first in which the Huskies were postseason-eligible, but they seemed to light a fire under his players and himself.
The UConn team that has pulled off three straight solid NCAA tourney victories, returning to the Elite Eight for the first time since its 2011 championship run, could in no way be described as badly coached.
The Huskies have beaten three opponents with different playing styles by finding a way to turn those teams' strengths into weaknesses, with Friday's 81-76 win over Iowa State coming as a result of forcing the quick-to-shoot Cyclones into choosing bad looks.
It's the kind of late-season adjustment (and surge) we used to see from those old Jim Calhoun Huskies teams, most recently the squad that won the 2011 NCAA title despite finishing ninth in the Big East.
Kemba Walker virtually willed that team to a championship, etching his name in program legend by piloting UConn to five wins in as many days to win the Big East tourney and then navigating it through an increasingly tougher series of opponents to take the title.
In 2011 UConn outmuscled Cincinnati in the third round and then forced a slow-down San Diego State team to run in the Sweet 16. Next came a slugfest with normally up-tempo Arizona in the Elite Eight, followed by defensive gems in beating Kentucky in the Final Four and Butler in the title game.
Slap a Walker jersey on Shabazz Napier, the floor leader of this year's Huskies team, and you'd swear it was the same player.
He got UConn into the AAC tourney final by knocking off tourney host Memphis and then regular-season champ Cincinnati, and in the Big Dance he put together two of the best second halves in tournament history to pace victories over St. Joseph's (in overtime) and Villanova.
He and the Huskies did so by outrunning St. Joe's and then slowing down 'Nova and Iowa State.
Napier, a 6'1" senior who won the AAC Player of the Year award but feels like one of the Huskies' most unheralded stars ever, has epitomized what's happened to UConn's reputation with the breakup of the Big East and the impending departure of Louisville from the AAC to the ACC.
ESPN's Chad Ford, a noted NBA draft expert, hasn't updated his analysis of Napier (subscription required) since November 2010, when he expected him to have a "big sophomore year" once Walker departed for the pros.
But once UConn got on this late run, Napier has reignited interest in the Huskies, especially with as mercurial as his play has been. He even had his Willis Reed moment, going from being in visible pain on the bench with a shin injury to driving for a key basket late against Villanova in the third round.
Napier was by far the star of those wins over St. Joe's and 'Nova, scoring 24 and 25, respectively. And it looked like he was going to be at it again versus Iowa State, draining all four of his three-point attempts in the game's first 10 minutes.
That's when Ollie did something that belies his three-week-old declaration that UConn was badly coached: He turned Napier into a decoy.
Iowa State tried whatever it could do to stifle Napier, not realizing until it was too late that's just what Ollie was hoping for. As a result, Napier became a facilitator and a distributor, which enabled DeAndre Daniels to have the game of his life with 27 points and 10 rebounds.
The dynamic is similar to how, in 2011, Walker became such a focus of opponents that it allowed freshman Jeremy Lamb to rise up as the second star, making UConn that much harder to beat en route to its third NCAA title. Lamb averaged 11 points per game that season but upped that rate to more than 16 a game in the tourney.
With Daniels stepping up now and Napier (who had 19 against Iowa State) continuing to lead, UConn is no longer an afterthought. Connecticut has won three of its last four Elite Eight games, and if this club keeps on its current pace, that will be four out of five.
UConn is a game away from its fifth Final Four in 16 seasons and has both the momentum and the confidence to make that happen.
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