Shabazz Napier, coach Kevin Ollie have begun new era at UConn

Kevin Ollie

If you happen to be an avid follower of the madness that we call the month of March and therefore attempted to lighten Warren Buffett of a billion dollars recently, chances are pretty good that the Connecticut Huskies weren’t included in your Final Four.

Not that long ago, Jim Calhoun’s Huskies were the pride of the former Big East and a fixture in NCAA Tournament brackets across the country.

But since winning the program’s third national championship in 2011, UConn’s best showing at the big dance was a first-round exit courtesy of the Iowa State Cyclones a year after they were cutting down the nets.

Last year, the Huskies only postseason experience involved filling out their own brackets due to academic violations that resulted in the program’s ineligibility for the 2013 NCAA Tournament.

Combined with Calhoun’s departure, the once-feared Huskies appeared as though they’d be toothless for the foreseeable future, and the climb back to the national stage would have to be done in a new conference littered with mid-majors and temporary members.

As an added kick in the teeth, Connecticut could only watch as former conference foes such as Syracuse, Pittsburgh, and Notre Dame took the ACC up on an offer to relocate that the folks in Storrs had been trying to earn since the first group of Big East defectors made their way south.

But with the promotion of assistant coach Kevin Ollie who replaced his mentor in the fall of 2012, the program that had been depleted by sanctions, the departure of NBA hopefuls, and transfers, began to fight it’s way back to the top, and senior Shabazz Napier has remained a proud Huskie through it all.

Part of the championship squad in 2011 as a freshman, Napier entered his senior year at UConn hungry for a final chance at a run in the NCAA Tournament and averaged just over 17 points per night for the second straight year along with 5.9 rebounds, and 4.9 assist per game.

After earning the fourth seed in the AAC’s inaugural conference tournament, Napier led the former Big East power to wins over the Memphis Tigers and Cincinnati Bearcats before losing to head coach Rick Pitino and the defending national champion Louisville Cardinal in the final.

Given the seventh seed in the East region, Napier scored 24 points with eight rebounds, six assists, and three steals during Connecticut’s win over St. Joseph’s in it’s first game of the tournament, and then dropped 25 points, five boards, three assists, and a pair of steals on the way to leading the Huskies past the Villanova Wildcats for a trip to the ”Sweet 16”.

Against the third-seeded Iowa State Cyclones in UConn’s next game, Napier again answered the call with 19 points, five rebounds, five assists, and two steals while leading the Huskies to a 81-76 win, but wasn’t anywhere near finished as evidenced with the 25 points, six rebounds, and four assists he had during Sunday’s victory over the Michigan State Spartans.

Next up for Napier and the Huskies will be a date with the top-ranked Florida Gators who’ve won a staggering, 30-straight games. But as ESPN.com pointed out, coincidentally, the last time that Billy Donovan and the Gators lost was on December 2nd to Connecticut 65-64.

Whether or not Napier and UConn will be able to reproduce whatever it was that led to their first win over Florida on their way to a national championship remains to be seen. But regardless of the outcome, Sunday’s win and upcoming trip to the Final Four has officially began a new era in UConn basketball, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.

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