A year removed from a postseason ban, UConn now a win away from the Final Four

Elsa

18 months ago, UConn was banned from the postseason, left out of the realignment scramble and had a coach with a seven-month contract. Now, they're 40 minutes and a lead away from the Final Four.

A year ago, Shabazz Napier was at home. A year ago, the guy who lives for basketball was ignoring the biggest event in his sport. A year ago, the American Athletic Conference Player of the Year was watching River Monsters on Animal Planet.

"To be honest, I didn't watch one game," Napier said of the 2013 tournament. "I was more into watching River Monsters, stuff like that. I didn't want to watch because I felt like if I did, I would be aggravated or annoyed with it."

The 2012-13 NCAA Tournament unfolded without the Connecticut Huskies. It wasn't a poor season that kept them out of the field of 68, but a poor APR score. The APR measures a team's progress in the classroom based on retention and academic eligibility, and UConn had a stretch in the late-2000s that was, in a word, pitiful.

The stretch that the APR measured was from 2007-08 to 2010-11. But when last year's ban hit the Huskies, not a single player on the roster had impacted UConn's score negatively.

In fact, last year's team earned a perfect APR score and used the ban as motivation for this year.

"We felt like we didn't deserve it," senior forward Niels Giffey said. "That was taken away from us for reasons that we as players could not have impacted in any way."

When the ban was first announced in 2012, some fled the program. Roscoe Smith transferred to UNLV where he became one of the nation's best rebounders. Alex Oriakhi, who had struggled through a tough 2011-12 season, rebounded with a career year at Missouri as a senior. Jeremy Lamb and Andre Drummond declared for the NBA Draft, though as lottery picks they were likely gone anyway.

To make the future in Storrs murkier, Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun retired that summer, leaving Kevin Ollie to take over with just two years of experience as an assistant and a seven-month contract.

The roster may have been depleted and it may have been forced into the fledgling AAC with a first-year coach, but the core of this year's team -- Giffey, Napier, Ryan Boatright and DeAndre Daniels -- all stayed. They played through a year that they knew could not end by cutting down the nets, with the ultimate goal of doing so in 2014.

"We didn't transfer because we're loyal to UConn and one another and the coaching staff," Daniels said during the Huskies' press conference Saturday following their Sweet 16 victory over Iowa State the night before. "And just coming back, just for everything. Not just the basketball, but just for life and just for the school."

Daniels then turned to Napier and mentioned that his teammate returned to get his degree, which he promised his mother he would do.

But for Napier, it was even more than that. As a sophomore in 2011-12, he had to replace Kemba Walker as a leader, but felt he did not do a good enough job. When times got tough -- the Huskies lost four in a row and six out of eight early in conference play -- Napier isolated himself, shying away from his perceived job of picking up a struggling team.

"That's the reason why I didn't transfer," Napier said. "I felt like I owed something."

So Napier pushed through last season, averaging a team-high 17.1 points per game. He resisted the temptation to enter the NBA Draft after that and returned for his senior year, both to get his degree and get another shot at the NCAA Tournament.

He's made the most of it.

Napier scored a combined 49 points in the Huskies' first two tournament wins, including a few clutch threes to lead UConn to the upset win over 2 seed Villanova. Then against Iowa State, in front of thousands of Husky fans, his mother and several former UConn players, he got the Huskies going early as they led nearly wire-to-wire to upset 3 seed Iowa State, 81-76 at Madison Square Garden.

Next up might be their stiffest challenge yet. UConn draws 4 seed Michigan State, a team many think could win the National Championship, at 2:20 p.m. ET for a shot at the Final Four.

"We understand that this is definitely going to be another dogfight," Napier said. "We don't expect them to back down and I hope they don't expect us to back down."

The Huskies have spent two years not backing down from challenges. From upsetting these same Spartans to start last year all the way to their recent surge, it's been toughness and resiliency that has saved the program from what could have been a permanent downfall.

"They weren't banned from loving and pushing and encouraging each other, and that's what it's all about," Ollie said. "If you don't give up in the dark times, it will reverse."

That reversal is complete now, with or without a trip to Dallas next week.

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