NEW YORK – Connecticut senior Niels Giffey’s eyes kept darting around the locker room toward his two freshman-year roommates on Sunday, his mind drifting to the late-night conversations that helped pave the way for the Huskies’ improbable run to the Final Four.
To the left sat star Shabazz Napier, surrounded by cameras. He had eschewed transferring to another school and declaring early for the NBA draft the past two offseasons, after the program received a one-year postseason ban from the NCAA.
And over Giffey’s right shoulder was forward Tyler Olander, as happy as ever despite struggling through off-court issues and going from a starter when Connecticut won the 2011 national championship to a bit player on this year’s team.
It all suddenly seemed worth it.
“The way we fought through last year and the way we accepted that struggle — we stayed with the team and we stayed with this group — really, really set the basis for this year,” Giffey said, moments after the Huskies had defeated Michigan State at Madison Square Garden in the NCAA tournament’s East Region final.
“Because it wasn’t about titles. It wasn’t about accomplishments. We really played for each other and we played for something bigger than yourself. We found a different way to motivate ourselves and I think we still have that same mind-set — that professional mind-set — this year. That helped us so much throughout the tough stretches. I think last year really got us ready for this year.”
This is what makes Connecticut’s fifth trip to the Final Four more meaningful than the rest. When the seventh-seeded Huskies take the floor to face top-seed Florida on Saturday night in Arlington, Tex., they will do so with the knowledge that few have overcome such adversity over the past 22 months.
In June 2012, the NCAA served Connecticut a one-year postseason ban because its Academic Progress Rate — a measure of academic achievement based on the eligibility and retention of each scholarship player — fell below 900 over a four-year span. The Huskies were the only team from a so-called “power conference” to face such punishment.
Just three months later, and less than two months before the 2012-13 college basketball season began, longtime coach Jim Calhoun announced his retirement because of health concerns.
Kevin Ollie, a first-time head coach and former Huskies player, took over the program on an interim basis, given just a seven-month contract.
Add in the demise of the old Big East and Connecticut’s failed attempts to relocate to another major conference — the Huskies now play in the American Athletic Conference after reportedly being rebuffed by the ACC and Big Ten, among others — and there were concerns this once-mighty program, which won its third national championship in 2011, would fall by the wayside.
Ollie, though, had other ideas, not wanting to let down Calhoun, who continually told his former player to “be yourself.” That meant ignoring the negativity that suddenly engulfed his team and preaching positivity.
“He took a job with a team that had nothing to play for last year, but he did not look at it that way,” Olander said. “His theme last year was to build for this year. He would tell us to plant seeds for the future.”
Ollie often speaks in cliches, but they had more meaning than usual for a group of players who decided to stay loyal to Connecticut.
“You can’t skip no steps, and the last two years, we didn’t skip no steps,” he said Sunday, describing his walk up the ladder to cut down the net at Madison Square Garden.
The Huskies finished the 2012-13 season with a 20-10 record, but Ollie had set a foundation. This season, he took Connecticut on a symbolic tour of AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Tex., the site of this year’s Final Four, in the midst of consecutive losses at Houston and Southern Methodist on Dec. 31 and Jan. 4.
“Everything that we went through, everything this program has gone through, to have it continue to drive forward and move forward under Kevin . . . this is an unbelievable moment for us in our history,” said Connecticut Athletic Director Warde Manuel, who signed Ollie, 41, to a five-year contract extension in December 2012.
Nobody, though, felt more satisfaction than Calhoun on Sunday.
He remains an ever-present figure in Storrs, Conn., with an office at Gampel Pavilion. He recruited most of the main contributors on this year’s team, and Giffey noted they have gained more of an appreciation for the “tough love” he often showed on the sideline.
On the court, Calhoun kept trying to break away from reporters and celebrate with his former players. But then a question about the uncertainty surrounding Connecticut the past two years would come up, and the 71-year-old would continue to fire back at the critics.
His hand-picked successor had proven “a helluva lot of people right.” And the program he built had shown more resiliency than ever.
“That fiber of U-Conn. has not gone anyplace and I’ve been fighting that for two or three weeks: ‘We were disappearing.’ So you disappear [three] years after the national championship,” Calhoun said. “The biggest misnomer is that we’ve gone anyplace.”
Jenkins: Ollie says all the right things