Friday, March 28, 2014
Five things: UConn keeps making believers
By Dana O'Neil
NEW YORK -- Less than a month ago, Connecticut lost by 33 points against Louisville in a game that exposed every sort of liability and shortcoming the Huskies had.
And now, here we are.
If you don’t believe in the power of believing, well, then you don’t know March.
The Huskies are exactly what the NCAA tournament is about -- a good team that finds itself at just the right time, feeding off a newfound confidence to surprising results. No way anyone outside of the state of Connecticut saw this coming.
Yet here we are.
Seventh-seeded UConn survived a late rally from Iowa State to win 81-76 and advance to the Elite Eight.
Daniels scored a team-high 27 points against Iowa State, 19 of which came in the second half. Add that to the 18 he had against Saint Joseph's in the second round and 11 against Villanova, and you’ve got a guy who’s becoming a viable threat at just the right time.
Long and lean, Daniels is tough to guard. He can spot up and hit a 3 -- he hit two against the Cyclones -- but he can also work on the inside. He’s exactly what UConn has needed -- and been missing -- all season.
Not that you can forget Napier. Look, this will be Napier’s team until the season ends, whenever it ends. He’s still the engine and the motor. If not scoring the points, then he's setting up his teammates for them.
Even though he got a lot more help in this game -- along with Daniels, Napier’s wingmate, Boatright, continued his impressive tourney with 16 points -- Napier is still the engine and the motor. And while the Kemba Walker analogies might be growing tiresome, they aren’t going anywhere.
No Georges Niang hurt Iowa State on both sides. Coach Fred Hoiberg said on Thursday that he essentially goes into each game with two cards -- one filled with plays that start with DeAndre Kane, the other that run through Niang. So Iowa State essentially played this game with half of its offense sitting on the bench in a warm-up suit.
The Cyclones got by against North Carolina -- a better matchup -- but with no Niang inside, the Huskies were able to attack everything inside. UConn was cited for only four blocked shots in the official box score, but it altered plenty more. Kane and Melvin Ejim tried more circus shots than smart shots, which totally took Iowa State out of its offensive rhythm.
The two finished a combined 9-of-31.
On the other end of the floor, Niang's absence meant the Huskies were able to get in the lane with ease, either to score on pull-ups or kick out to easy 3-pointers.
It was almost an unfair fight.
This is now, and officially, Kevin Ollie’s team. It’s not easy to coach under the shadow of a legend, especially when said legend keeps lurking around behind the bench. Ollie has handled his inheritance of the UConn program with grace and dignity, never complaining about Jim Calhoun’s presence, never failing to compliment Calhoun’s legacy and welcome his insight.
But the page is turned once and for all now. The Huskies, caught in a dangerous season as they try to reassert themselves under Ollie and in a less-established league, have not missed a beat. Ollie has remade the team in his image, clapping and defensive crouching them from the sidelines into a team with more of an NBA style, but with equal success.
The Garden ought to be an NCAA tournament host every season. Feel free to call it East Coast bias, but when you’ve got an arena with as much hoops tradition as Madison Square Garden, a city that loves basketball and a place worth visiting, multiple return visits aren’t a bad thing.
The ticket gouging might have been criminal -- and the wheeling and dealing outside the building before tipoff would make Wall Streeters blush -- but the atmosphere in the building was electric.
There aren’t a whole lot of places left that mean anything to people from the ages of 65 to 25 to 15, but the Garden is one of them. Good choice, NCAA. Now come back.