UConn's Road to the 2014 NCAA Basketball Championship

Joe MenzerFeatured ColumnistApril 8, 2014

UConn's Road to the 2014 NCAA Basketball Championship

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    Let the party begin! Connecticut's road to the 2014 national championship is complete.
    Let the party begin! Connecticut's road to the 2014 national championship is complete.Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    It never really looked all that easy, and it wasn't.

    Connecticut's road to the 2014 NCAA men's basketball championship was a winding one filled with potholes but one that ultimately proved navigable.

    Along the way, there were triumphs and losses ugly enough to be called tragedies. There were clutch performances and a near-heartbreak in the round of 64. 

    In the end, the Huskies became the first No. 7 seed to claim a national title. Overall, it was Connecticut's fourth championship since 1999 but the first for coach Kevin Ollie, the handpicked successor to UConn coaching legend Jim Calhoun.

    Ollie became the first Division I coach since Michigan's Steve Fisher in 1989 to win a title within his first two seasons.

    To understand how the Huskies pulled it off, a stroll through their season, highlighting key moments and personalities, is in order.

Coach Ollie Does It His Way

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    There is no doubt now that coach Kevin Ollie has Connecticut pointed in the right direction.
    There is no doubt now that coach Kevin Ollie has Connecticut pointed in the right direction.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    The season's success all starts with Kevin Ollie.

    Ollie replaced his former coach, the legendary Jim Calhoun, prior to last season, and prospects weren't all that great for immediate success. In fact, many wondered if he would last more than one year on the job.

    After all, he started the 2012-13 season essentially on a trial basis, working on a one-year contract that The Boston Globe's Christopher L. Gasper noted was "almost unheard of in major college basketball."

    The Huskies were banned by the NCAA from participating in last year's tournament because of a substandard academic progress rate (APR) from 2007 to 2011 while Calhoun was still coach.

    Ollie quickly earned a five-year contract extension in December 2012, and this year he proved that he had a knack for relating to his kids and getting the most out of them at critical junctures. He also refused to overreact when things went badly, like after an 81-48 loss to Louisville on March 8. 

    Ollie spent 13 seasons in the NBA with 12 different teams (if you count the Sonics and Thunder).

    He told Gasper that he once got cut on Christmas Eve but shook off the disappointment and kept on grinding, looking for his next hoops destination. He also guarded the likes of Kobe Bryant and played with such teammates as Allen Iverson, LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

    All of those basketball life experiences combined to make him the perfect coach for this team, which ultimately hung on his every word.

Channeling Jim Calhoun

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    Jim Calhoun was all smiles after congratulating Coach Ollie following an earlier NCAA tournament win.
    Jim Calhoun was all smiles after congratulating Coach Ollie following an earlier NCAA tournament win.Elsa/Getty Images

    While it was Kevin Ollie's team, Jim Calhoun played his part. 

    There is a wonderful dynamic between Ollie and Calhoun. It's never easy following an icon in any position, and it would appear to be even more difficult if said icon attended all of your tournament games even though he's no longer the coach.

    But there is such a deep respect between the two. On April 4, Ollie told The Boston Globe's Christopher L. Gasper, "I can never fill Coach Calhoun's shoes. I can never build a program to a perennial top-10 program each and every year. This program has already been built."

    Calhoun, meanwhile, told Gasper that he and Ollie often talk—but insisted that it's Ollie's team. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that having Calhoun so readily available continues to be a valuable asset for Ollie. 

    "It's worked out well for us. I love my relationship with him," Calhoun said. "We can talk. But this is his team."

Bookend Titles for Shabazz

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    Senior guard Shabazz Napier (13) made a statement during the national championship game, and after.
    Senior guard Shabazz Napier (13) made a statement during the national championship game, and after.Associated Press

    If Ollie was channeling Calhoun, then Connecticut point guard Shabazz Napier no doubt spent much of his senior season channeling Kemba Walker.

    Now he has something even the dynamic Walker, who currently stars in the NBA for the Charlotte Bobcats, can never match. Napier has bookended his UConn career with a pair of national titles.

    And hey, maybe it would have been three if the NCAA had not banned Napier and his teammates from postseason play last year.

    "You're looking at the hungry Huskies! This is what happens when you ban us!" Napier shouted over national television on CBS when announcer Jim Nantz briefly let Shabazz handle the microphone during the postgame celebration.

    There was one major difference between Napier's two national titles. In the 2011 championship win over Butler, Napier came off the bench as Walker's backup, missed five of the six shots he attempted from the field and scored four points. 

    This time, the Huskies were his team, in his hands, as was the ball the majority of the time. He scored 22 points and added six rebounds, three assists and three steals while playing 39 of the 40 minutes as he was named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four.

The Louisville Debacle

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    Louisville coach Rick Pitino had the Huskies' number, but he didn't last long enough to face them in the NCAA tourney.
    Louisville coach Rick Pitino had the Huskies' number, but he didn't last long enough to face them in the NCAA tourney.Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    What could have been worse than losing by 33 points to American Athletic Conference (and former Big East) rival Louisville in the final game of the regular season?

    Not much, and that was Ollie's point to his players afterward. He gathered them for a film session and rolled the tape—not of the Louisville debacle, but of a win his team posted over Florida on Dec. 2. 

    "I just wanted to show them, you know, Florida was No. 1 and we can beat No. 1," Ollie told SB Nation. "We have already proved it."

    The 33-point loss to Louisville was not even one month removed from Monday's national championship game.

    Yet by not panicking or overreacting, Ollie may have saved the season. His players followed his lead and went on to win eight of their last nine games, with the only loss during that span coming by the much more reasonable score of 71-61 to Louisville in the AAC tournament final.

    By the time the Final Four rolled around, Louisville was long gone from the NCAA tournament and no longer a threat.

Survival of Saint Joseph's

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    It was hard for Saint Joseph's to fathom how it let UConn escape.
    It was hard for Saint Joseph's to fathom how it let UConn escape.Associated Press

    None of this would have happened if Connecticut had lost its opening game of the tournament to No. 10 seed Saint Joseph's.

    Colorful coach Phil Martelli no doubt is still wondering how this one slipped away. His team arguably outplayed UConn for the vast majority of the game, yet it ended up losing 89-81 in overtime.

    Part of this can be attributed to Ollie's never-give-up attitude that permeated throughout the Huskies roster. And part could be attributed to their free-throw shooting, as the Huskies were 16-of-16 in the second half and overtime before Ryan Boatright's miss with 8.9 seconds left. 

    But much of it could also be attributed to Shabazz Napier's raw determination on a night when he wasn't at his best, shooting only 7-of-22 from the field. He ended up scoring nine of his team-high 24 points in overtime, willing the Huskies to victory on the only night of the tournament when they weren't the best team on the floor for the first 40 minutes.

Steady in the Clutch

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    The Huskies' free-throw shooting was exceptional all season, but especially so in the tournament.
    The Huskies' free-throw shooting was exceptional all season, but especially so in the tournament.Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

    Free-throw shooting seems to be such a lost art for so many major college teams these days.

    Considering its importance in determining the outcome of tight ballgames, it's surprising more teams don't put a greater emphasis on it.

    The national championship game was a perfect example.

    The more physical Kentucky Wildcats went to the free-throw line for 24 attempts and made just 13 (54.2 percent). Connecticut went to the foul line for only 10 attempts and didn't miss. It was the first time in NCAA tournament history that a team was perfect from the free-throw line in the championship game.

    The Huskies' free-throw shooting overall in the tournament was nothing short of remarkable. In fact, by making 101 of 115 attempts for 87.8 percent, the Huskies set a tournament record for highest percentage of any team with a minimum of three games played.

    That broke the previous record of 87.0 percent that was set by St. John's in 1969, when it seemed more teams knew how to get it done from the foul line.

Gator Bites

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    When it came to stopping the Gators, Connecticut knew its way around the swamp.
    When it came to stopping the Gators, Connecticut knew its way around the swamp.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Just as Louisville seemed to have Connecticut's number all season, Connecticut had Florida's.

    So when it came time to face the top-seeded Gators in the Final Four, there was no fear in the Huskies. The Gators entered that national semifinal game with a 30-game win streak dating back to Dec. 2—the last time they had played Connecticut, resulting in a 65-64 win for UConn.

    Stifling pressure defense plus 20 points from DeAndre Daniels on an assortment of baseline jumpers, three-pointers and memorable dunks led to a more convincing 63-53 Connecticut victory in the Final Four. It also proved that the December win over the Gators was no fluke.

    "Once they got their defense set I think we had a hard time handling their pressure," Florida coach Billy Donovan said after the game, via CNN's Ralph Ellis

Experience Triumphs over Youth

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    In the end, Kentucky's youth and brute strength were no match for the experience and quickness of UConn.
    In the end, Kentucky's youth and brute strength were no match for the experience and quickness of UConn.David J. Phillip

    Kentucky was a marvelously talented team coached by the enigmatic John Calipari. It frequently won games simply by overpowering opponents by relentlessly attacking the glass on both ends of the court. On offense, the Wildcats liked to pound the ball inside and take their chances, eschewing the three-point shot because they knew they did not shoot it well.

    But that meant they were at a decided disadvantage when they fell behind a team like UConn, as they did early in the title game. Although Kentucky battled hard, it seemed like an uphill struggle—because it was. No team that shoots free throws as poorly as Kentucky (especially on Monday night) or lacks consistent three-point threats is likely to win a national championship.

    Led by Napier, UConn seemed to know when to press the issue on offense and when to pull back and practice patience. And the Huskies weren't afraid to foul, so they were the aggressors on defense. In short, they played a smarter, more efficient game at both ends.

Seven Is a Winning Number

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    The Huskies became the first No. 7 seed in NCAA tournament history to win the championship.
    The Huskies became the first No. 7 seed in NCAA tournament history to win the championship.Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    Seven hasn't been a very lucky number in the NCAA tournament. But in becoming the first No. 7 seed in tournament history to win it all, Connecticut earned a little piece of history. 

    Ollie said he didn't take anything his team did all season for granted, and obviously he won't going forward. Ollie has stressed the team unity angle, and it will serve him well next season as Napier and two other contributing seniors, swingman Niels Giffey from Germany and 6'10" forward/center Tyler Olander, move on.

    In the case of the title game, the experience of Ollie's upperclassmen won out over the freshman-laden Kentucky. There seems little doubt that he will continue to recruit players who buy into his philosophy. For what it's worth, Kentucky had seven McDonald's All-Americans on its roster Monday, including six freshmen, while Connecticut had none.

    Ollie talked often of his team playing at "Level Five" in Final Four news conferences, and according to Richard Johnson of GatorCountry.com, he explained that it is a championship mentality built on playing together on offense and defense and avoiding playing as individuals.

    "The whole of our team is better than the sums of its parts," Ollie said. "We know that."

    The whole of his team is better than the rest of the NCAA field. Now the rest of the college basketball world knows that too.