Connecticut surprised nearly everyone with a 77-65 upset win over Villanova Saturday night, earning the Huskies a trip to the Sweet 16. The win was a great accomplishment for a program that sat out last season's tournament due to NCAA sanctions and is led by a coach in just his second season at the helm.
Head coach Kevin Ollie, who played in the Sweet 16 twice as a player for the Huskies, now has Connecticut back in the regional semifinal in its first season after those sanctions were lifted. Fans are dreaming of a third Final Four in six years, a possibility nobody considered just six weeks ago. Behind a lineup laden with upperclassmen and a guard who is drawing comparisons to UConn legend Kemba Walker, the Huskies are a threat to every team left in the field.
The Huskies finished their regular season at 24-7, with a 12-6 record in the American Athletic Conference. After racking up 11 wins in non-conference play, including one-point wins over Florida, Maryland and Indiana, UConn stumbled out of the gates in the AAC. The Huskies dropped their conference opener against Houston -- their only loss to a team outside the final KenPom top 100 this season -- and followed it with a loss to SMU. Despite righting the ship with a 10-2 run following those two early conference losses, the Huskies had been considered a bubble team well into February. Eventually, UConn's resume -- two wins over Memphis, a victory against Cincinnati and the previous victory against the Gators -- got the team into the field of 68, and conference tournament wins over fellow tournament teams Memphis and Cincinnati improved its seed.
UConn is led by Wooden Award contender Shabazz Napier, who scored 49 points in the Huskies' first two tournament games. Napier, a 6'1 senior guard, leads the Huskies in all three major categories: He averages 17.8 points, 5.9 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game, and contributes nearly two steals per contest on the defensive end. The Huskies focus on the perimeter, with Napier's ability to break down a defense often leaving open three-point shots. Juniors Ryan Boatright (11.9 ppg, 3.5 apg) and DeAndre Daniels (12.6 ppg, 5.7 rpg) also score in double figures, with all three players shooting better than 37 percent from behind the three-point arc. Senior forward Niels Giffey (8.4 ppg, 51.9 3P%) gives the Huskies a fourth perimeter threat. Seven-foot center Amida Brimah is limited offensively, but has grown to become of the nation's best shot blockers, swatting more than two shots per game despite playing limited minutes.
Ollie, a former UConn star, played 13 years in the NBA before returning to Storrs as an assistant to the legendary Jim Calhoun. He has instilled in this team the great halfcourt defense that was the hallmark of Calhoun's best teams. The Huskies are 11th nationally in defensive efficiency, and have allowed opponents to shoot at just a 44.3 percent effective rate. UConn contests almost every shot in the paint through Brimah and Daniels, and forces opponents into perimeter jump shots. The results are obvious: Opponents shoot just 42 percent inside the three-point line against Connecticut, and nearly one in every six attempts is blocked. With help in the paint, Napier and Boatright are free to harass opposing guards and generate steals on the perimeter. Senior guard Lasan Kromah has also become an effective perimeter defender, and freshman Terrence Samuel can contribute at both ends of the court when needed.
Saturday's win over Villanova earned Connecticut a trip to Madison Square Garden, the place where the program won so many crucial Big East Tournament games during Calhoun's run as head coach. Ollie and his Huskies are going to try to channel those teams next weekend. If they can do it, a ticket to the Final Four is within their grasp.