College Basketball Nation: NCAA East 2014

NEW YORK -- She used to sneak out of work at lunchtime and drive wherever the game was being played.

Sometimes when she went back to work the next day, she didn't have a job, her boss fed up with an absentee employee.

And then there would be another game, another job and she would do it all over again. The bills would come in and Carmen Velasquez would hole up in her bedroom while she tried to figure out a solution to an unsolvable problem.

"I didn't care," Velasquez said. "My kids came first. My kids always came first. I'd do it all over again if I had to because they knew. They knew it wasn't easy, but they knew I was there for them. It was worth it."

Her voice so hoarse even a whisper was almost too much, Velasquez then started to cry. Because believing something is worth sacrificing and realizing the reward isn't always immediate.

But the believers never stop clinging to the hope. It's why they call it blind faith. That's what Velasquez did.

And that's what she taught her son to do.

Shabazz Napier led Connecticut to a fairy tale Final Four courtesy of a 60-54 win over Michigan State because he scored 25 points and had four assists; because he, like Kemba Walker, the man whose bar he tried to reach for four years, scored or assisted on 45 percent of his team's points en route to the Final Four.

But mostly because Napier, who lost his coach, his conference and a postseason in one year, had faith it could happen even when no one else did.

To continue reading this story, click here.

Video: UConn's Shabazz Napier

March, 30, 2014
Mar 30

Connecticut senior guard Shabazz Napier talks about beating Michigan State and heading to the Final Four.

Video: Calhoun on Huskies' run

March, 30, 2014
Mar 30

Andy Katz talks to former UConn coach Jim Calhoun about the school's return to the Final Four after it toppled Michigan State, 60-54.

NEW YORK -- Connecticut is headed back to the Final Four for the first time since 2011. The Huskies won the East Regional at Madison Square Garden, the first NCAA tournament games held at the historic venue since 1961, beating Michigan State 60-54 in the regional final Sunday.

UConn is the first No. 7 seed to advance to the Final Four since the tournament was expanded in 1985. Here are five quick observations from the game:

Back and forth: For a low-scoring contest, this was a game of wild runs.

Connecticut jumped in front 12-2 less than five minutes in. Michigan State got off the mat and then some, taking a 25-21 halftime lead. The Spartans led by as many as nine (32-23) early in the second half. Then the Huskies took over again, with a 26-7 spurt to go in front 49-39, and held off Michigan State in the end.

We billed this game as a fight between college basketball heavyweights, and it lived up to the hype. The punch-counterpunch action was riveting. And the Garden, 19,499 fans strong, was the perfect backdrop.

Difference maker: You know what? It's time to stop comparing Shabazz Napier to Kemba Walker, and simply marvel at the player Napier has become in his own right.

Napier propelled his team to victory on Sunday, as he has all season long. His stat line: 25 points (17 of them coming in the second half), six rebounds and four assists.

He hit the biggest shot of the game, a jumper with 1:39 remaining to make it 53-49. And then he hit all three free throws after Keith Appling fouled him beyond the arc with 30.6 seconds left, making it 56-51.

Speaking of free throws ... It's not talked about nearly enough, but success (or failure) at the foul line can go a long way.

Connecticut was ranked sixth in the country in free throw percentage coming in, shooting 76.9 percent as a team. The Huskies shot 20-for-22 in the regional semis against Iowa State, and 21-for-22 on Sunday against Michigan State. It's no coincidence they are headed to Texas.

Out of snyc: Michigan State simply looked out of sorts offensively for much of this game, despite having its full complement of players after an injury-riddled season.

Branden Dawson scored just five points, after pouring in 50 points in the first two games of this tournament. Adreian Payne had 13, but shot just 4-for-14 and spent most of his time on the perimeter. Gary Harris came through with a team-high 22. But backcourt mate Appling scored just two points.

Appling and Payne, both seniors, become the first two four-year players in Tom Izzo's 19-year tenure to fail to advance to a Final Four.

Kev-in Oll-ie! The UConn fans chanted that salute to their coach after the victory, and it was well deserved.

Ollie has done a remarkable job taking over for Hall of Famer Jim Calhoun, guiding the Huskies through their postseason ban last season and now guiding them to a Final Four in just his second year at the helm.

The Huskies are in good hands for a long time to come.

NEW YORK -- The seedings tell us Michigan State and Connecticut don’t belong here anymore.

But we know better than that, don’t we?

Michigan State versus UConn … just let that simmer for a moment.

This isn't a matchup of No. 4 and No. 7 seeds. It’s the college basketball equivalent of a heavyweight fight, making it only fitting that Madison Square Garden will serve as host.

[+] EnlargeMichigan State
Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY SportsAfter a tough regular season, Branden Dawson has been a big part of Michigan State's postseason run.
Just do the math. Seven Elite Eights since 1999 for the Huskies. Eight Elite Eights during that same span for the Spartans.

The fans of these two teams are spoiled rotten. And we will be, too, come Sunday afternoon.

“We understand when you get to an Elite Eight, you’re gonna play one of the best teams in the country. Michigan State is one of those guys,” UConn guard Shabazz Napier said Saturday. “Great guards, great big guys, great tradition, great coach and it’s gonna be definitely a dogfight.”

“We have got more experience inside. They have probably got a little more outside,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “I think for the most part, both of us got a decent amount of experience to be playing in an Elite Eight game, and I think that’s what should make it a great, great game.”

Both teams entered the season with lofty expectations, each residing in the Associated Press Top 25. Connecticut was ranked 18th and picked to finish second behind only Louisville in the inaugural year of the American Athletic Conference.

Michigan State was 16 spots higher -- just a sliver behind Kentucky in a virtual tie for preseason No. 1.

But it’s been a roller coaster of a season, for both teams. UConn opened 9-0 but then suffered back-to-back losses to Houston and SMU four weeks later and dropped out of the national rankings entirely. The Huskies finished tied for third in the AAC, but were embarrassed by Louisville in the teams’ regular-season finale 81-48.

Michigan State was 18-1 in late January, looking every bit as good as expected. But then the Spartans, thanks in part to several injuries, lost seven of their final 12 regular-season games -- including a stunning loss to Georgetown here at the Garden on the first day of February.

Seems like ancient history now.

Speaking of history, that’s been the theme in New York this week. After all, these are the first NCAA tournament games in 53 years at Madison Square Garden.

But two Michigan State players are trying to avoid making history Sunday. If the Spartans don’t beat UConn, seniors Keith Appling and Adreian Payne will become the first four-year players in Izzo’s 19-year tenure to fail to reach at least one Final Four.

“That’s the extra chip that we have on our shoulders,” Appling said. “So we’re just kind of embracing the moment.”

Izzo said it was something the team talked about early in the season. “I didn't bring it up as much in the last two months, because we had so many other things to deal with,” Izzo said. “Yet I'm starting to hear them talk about it, and I think it's a good thing.”

This isn't the last chance for junior forward Branden Dawson, but he’s certainly playing like it is. Dawson scored 20 just once in the first 35 games of the season, including missing nine games with a broken right hand after slamming it on a table during a film session. But he had 26 points and nine boards in the Spartans’ third-round win over Harvard, and followed that up with 24 and 10 against Virginia on Friday.

“It was definitely frustrating,” Dawson said, of all the criticism the team heard during that rough stretch. “A lot of people on campus, we went to go get something to eat, went to the stores, a lot of people were just asking us, ‘What's going on with the team?’ Some people said it was my fault.”

If Michigan State is playing with a chip on its shoulder, then Connecticut is playing with ... well, an even bigger chip. UConn was banned from postseason play one year ago, meaning the Huskies -- despite finishing 20-10 -- were home watching March Madness.

Actually, they didn't even do that. “I actually couldn't even watch the tournament last year,” guard Ryan Boatright said. “It was so painful.”

The program could have imploded -- after all, these players were being punished for the academic sins of their predecessors. Instead they stuck together, with eyes planted firmly on the following March.

[+] EnlargeShabazz Napier, Monte Morris
Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY SportsAfter sanctions kept UConn out of the NCAA Tournament last year, Shabazz Napier and the Huskies are enjoying their Elite Eight run.
“It gave us a lot of motivation. We wanted to be in that tournament, but we couldn't,” Napier said. “I felt like we had chances to either let it bring you down or motivate you, and I think we let it motivate us.”

“Just find positives in everything -- that’s one thing I've learned from Coach [Kevin] Ollie,” Boatright said. “Any negative, you try to find the positive.”

Ollie has done a fine job navigating this program through such a challenging period. But he’s still in just his second year, trying to replace Hall of Famer Jim Calhoun.

So far, so good -- but this is still uncharted territory. “Those are things I can’t control,” Ollie said, of the high expectations. “What I can control is our attitude, how we play together, are we playing with effort, are we playing with passion.

“I can't be Coach Calhoun," Ollie said. "But I can be Kevin Ollie. I can take some great life lessons I learned from Coach and build on them and just try to create my own."

So, let’s review. Two college basketball programs with a combined five national championships, and 15 Elite Eight appearances in the past 16 years -- and yet both teams still feel as though they have something to prove, at this late stage of March?

Sounds like the recipe for a classic -- a bout to remember, and worthy of the storied setting.

Now all that’s left is to ring the bell.

Video: UConn's Ryan Boatright

March, 29, 2014
Mar 29

Andy Katz interviews Connecticut guard Ryan Boatright on the Huskies' deep tournament run and their Elite Eight matchup against Michigan State.

NEW YORK -- Tom Izzo has spent most of this season feeling more like Job than a basketball coach. The much-documented, medical-ward Spartans have tried him like no team he has had before.

There were times, he's admitted, when he wondered how his team would get through it, times he wondered why in the world this was all happening to him and his team.

He may have gotten his answer with 91 seconds left in a tightly wound, expertly played Sweet 16 game against Virginia.

The Cavaliers, a team that came to New York with doubters and left with converts, had just tied the game at 51 when Justin Anderson hit his only bucket of the game, a 3-pointer from the corner.

Izzo called timeout.

Except his team did the talking.

"We were just telling him to relax,'' Denzel Valentine said. "We said, 'We got this.' We had been in this position before. We weren't rattled.''

This was a game that frayed the nerves, a heavyweight bout where every possession felt like a game-winner, every miss a disaster.

Yet there were the Spartans, cool as cucumbers. They have been through hell this season, their season all but hijacked by broken bones and pulled muscles. Michigan State has played 37 games this season. For 31 of them, the Spartans were still trying to figure out who they were.

Read the rest of the story here.

Video: Michigan State-Virginia analysis

March, 29, 2014
Mar 29

Andy Katz and Kieran Darcy analyze Michigan State's 61-59 victory over Virginia in the East region semifinals of the NCAA tournament.

Video: Michigan State F Branden Dawson

March, 29, 2014
Mar 29

Andy Katz interviews Michigan State forward Branden Dawson after Michigan State's 61-59 victory over Virginia in the East region semifinals of the NCAA tournament.

NEW YORK -- Wow, that was fun.

The NCAA tournament returned to Madison Square Garden for the first time in 53 years on Friday night. The atmosphere was electric, and the teams did not disappoint. Michigan State staved off Virginia 61-59 in the nightcap. Here are five quick observations:

Crowd control: So much talk leading up to Friday night's doubleheader concerned the strong showing expected from Connecticut fans, and the Huskies had a definite home-court advantage in Game 1, but Virginia might have had an even bigger advantage in Game 2. The amount of orange in the building was Syracuse-esque here at MSG.

And the Virginia fans were loud, too! Can't blame them for being worked up, considering this was the team's first Sweet 16 appearance since 1995. Well done, Wahoos.

Old school: Around these parts, we used to be treated to some mighty good defensive battles during the heyday of the Big East. This game brought that era to mind.

Just like Wichita State-Kentucky featured shot-making worthy of the Final Four, as opposed to the round of 32, Michigan-State-Virginia belonged another round or two down the road.

Experience counts: Despite all that good defense, we saw some great shot-making down the stretch from both sides.

How about Virginia's Justin Anderson -- scoreless for 38 minutes -- draining a 3-pointer with 1:53 remaining to tie the game at 51?

But the biggest shot of the game was Adreian Payne's trey 22 seconds later which broke the tie and gave the Spartans the lead for good. Don't forget Payne's two clutch free throws with 32.9 seconds left -- in a 1-and-1 situation, no less -- pushing a 56-54 lead to 58-54.

Payne is a senior, Michigan State's been to the Sweet 16 six times in the past seven seasons and the Spartans made more plays at the end when it counts. That's no coincidence.

MVP? All this talk about Michigan State's senior class potentially being the first under Tom Izzo to not reach a Final Four, and it's a junior trying to lead them there.

Branden Dawson scored 20 points just once in the first 35 games of the season, but Dawson had 26 points and nine rebounds in the Spartans' third-round win over Harvard and followed that up with a team-high 24 points and 10 boards against Virginia.

Can't wait: The lower seeds won each of the two games here Friday night, yet it felt like the favorite won both games.

Forget the Spartans' No. 4 seed and the Huskies' No. 7: Michigan State versus UConn? That's a battle of college basketball heavyweights.

In Madison Square Garden, with a spot in the Final Four at stake? It doesn't get much better than that.

UConn felt right at home in MSG

March, 29, 2014
Mar 29

NEW YORK -- Madison Square Garden looked a little different, and sounded a little different. But in the end, it produced a very familiar result.

Connecticut, winner of seven Big East tournaments in this storied building, took the first NCAA tournament game at the Garden in 53 years with an 81-76 victory over Iowa State.

It was an upset in terms of seeding, and by Vegas' standards (barely). But to those of us who've watched the Huskies win big games here time and time again, it came as no surprise.

"My student-athletes played together, they played hard, and at the end of the game we played 40 [minutes] full to get this win," UConn coach Kevin Ollie said.

The surroundings were, sadly, NCAA-sanitized. Instead of the regular Madison Square hardwood, we saw a generic court identical to those at every other tournament site.

Famed public address announcer Mike Walczewski was barred from using his traditional greeting at the start of the night: "Welcome to Madison Square Garden, the world's most famous arena!"

But once the ball was tipped, normalcy was quickly restored.

You can read the rest of this story here.

Video: UConn's Daniels on Elite Eight win

March, 28, 2014
Mar 28

Andy Katz talks with DeAndre Daniels about the Huskies' win over Iowa State and his thoughts about UConn being 40 minutes away from the Final Four.

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.

Here are five observations from the game:

If DeAndre Daniels plays like this, watch out, Virginia or Michigan State. The Huskies have been waiting 37 games for someone not named Shabazz Napier or Ryan Boatright to offer up some steady offense. In this NCAA tournament, Daniels has raised his hand.

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.
It didn’t hit DeAndre Kane right away.

But after the hugs and the high-fives and the national television interview, back in the locker room, it finally hit him.

"I starting thinking how excited my dad would have been," Kane said. "He would have been more happy than me."

[+] EnlargeDeAndre Kane
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallIowa State's DeAndre Kane wears No. 50 for his dad and says, "I know he's happy watching this."
With a driving, game-winning layup last weekend, Iowa State’s point guard toppled North Carolina and sent the Cyclones to the Sweet 16 to set up a Madison Square Garden clash Friday with No. 7 UConn. But the man who first put a basketball in his hands, then became his biggest fan along the way, wasn’t there to see it.

Two years ago, Calvin Kane died suddenly from a brain aneurysm no one saw coming. Especially his son.

"We talk about it every day. DeAndre's father would be overjoyed with what is going on with DeAndre right now," said Kane's mother, Carol Robinson. "It hurts him his father not being here on this road with us, seeing what his son is doing. But at the end of the day, we know he's watching and seeing what DeAndre is doing."

And what DeAndre has been doing would indeed have caused his dad to be overjoyed.

In 1980, Calvin himself was a point guard on Lamar's Sweet 16 team coached by Billy Tubbs. Ki Lewis, the father of Miami Heat forward Rashard Lewis, also was on that team. So was the father of Oklahoma City Thunder center Kendrick Perkins, Kenneth, though he was redshirting that season after a transfer.

"What I remember about Calvin was that he was a really good kid, a good player," said Tubbs, who left for Oklahoma later that year.

Calvin had always told his son that the "time to shine" was in the NCAA tournament.

And so far, that's exactly what his son has been doing.

With the Cyclones missing third-leading scorer Georges Niang for the rest of the season because of a fractured foot suffered in the tournament opener, DeAndre elevated his game against the Tar Heels. He scored 24 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and dished out 7 assists, rallying Iowa State from a late eight-point deficit for the victory.

But life hasn't always been so easy for DeAndre, who came to the precipice of giving up basketball and school.

While DeAndre was in high school, he and his father were inseparable. Calvin went to every game, and after DeAndre signed with Marshall, that barely stopped.

DeAndre quickly rose to stardom for the Thundering Herd and was named the Conference USA freshman of the year. Two all-league seasons followed. But in February 2012, DeAndre’s world stopped.

Calvin had been planning to visit Huntington, W.Va., to help DeAndre with his free throw shooting between games. But before he could get there and without warning, Calvin collapsed from a brain aneurysm. Carol didn’t know how to break such devastating news to her son. She called DeAndre's teammate Shaquille Johnson for help.

A Marshall assistant drove DeAndre four hours to Pittsburgh, where he found his dad connected to machines. The family had been waiting for DeAndre to arrive before having Calvin taken off life support.

"He was my hero, my No. 1 fan," DeAndre said. "What I went through with my dad, that was the hardest thing in my life. Things got to me after that."

DeAndre wanted to give up basketball after that. After all, basketball was the one thing he and his father had shared. Carol and the rest of the family pleaded with DeAndre to go back. Eventually, he did. But Marshall wasn't the same. And before long, it became clear to everyone involved that DeAndre needed a change.

"He was having some struggles," Carol said. "He was young, he had lost his dad and he was hurting."

DeAndre had lost his focus, both in basketball and in life, she said. And despite being its best player, DeAndre was dismissed from the Marshall basketball team.

"He was doing wrong, and he knew he was doing wrong," said Carol, who declined to elaborate further. "He needed a fresh start."

He was my hero, my No. 1 fan. What I went through with my dad, that was the hardest thing in my life. Things got to me after that.

-- Iowa State's DeAndre Kane
DeAndre still managed to get his degree, then began looking for that fresh start.

The University of Pittsburgh showed interest. But Carol wanted her son to spend his final college season where he could regain his focus, and being back near old temptations of the Pittsburgh Hill District wasn't the answer.

Then Iowa State called.

So DeAndre and Carol went to visit.

"Driving in, I saw those cornfields, and you know what, I said this ain't nothing but focus town," Carol said. "This is where it's got to be. This is where my son could be successful."

Has he ever.

Under the tutelage of Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg, Kane rediscovered the tenets Calvin had instilled in him. And as the Cyclones surged the past two months, Kane was named first-team All-Big 12.

"That school and that place is awesome," Carol said. "I'm so glad that's where DeAndre ended up."

Iowa State is glad he ended up there, too.

And now, he's on the cusp of leading the Cyclones to the Elite Eight for just the third time in school history.

"I've overcome hard situations," he said. "So when we were down eight points [to North Carolina], I knew I had the mental toughness to help us find a way to win."

As a tribute to his father, DeAndre has been donning jersey No. 50, because Calvin died a week before he would have turned 50. And though Calvin can't help him with his free throws or his dribbling or his defense anymore, DeAndre knows he's still watching. Calvin wouldn't miss his son's time to shine.

"I know he's watching over me every day," DeAndre said. "I know he's happy watching this."

NEW YORK -- They call the NCAA tournament the Big Dance, and the Connecticut Huskies danced their way onto the Madison Square Garden floor Thursday.

It was a brand-new floor -- the NCAA installs its own court at each tournament site -- but everything else looked familiar to the Huskies, who played here twice earlier this season and 13 times in the past four years.

No wonder No. 7 seed UConn looked so comfortable as it prepared for its noon 50-minute open practice, with several players shimmying on the sidelines before the team was introduced.

[+] EnlargeShabazz Napier
Joe Murphy/Getty ImagesShabazz Napier and the Huskies believe they will have a home-court advantage Friday versus Iowa State.
“I told the guys, this came full circle,” Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie said. “I know we came down here and played in the 2K Classic and won that Classic. But to come down here this time, and our guys not able to play in the last Big East tournament that was here last year, it’s all full circle.”

It’s UConn’s 17th trip to the Sweet 16, but this one is extra special. The Huskies were banned from the NCAA tournament last season because of poor academic performance and ruled ineligible for the Big East tournament as well.

It’s also extra special because these will be the first NCAA tournament games at Madison Square Garden since 1961.

Star guard Shabazz Napier, one of several Huskies who elected to stay at UConn despite the postseason ban, admitted Thursday he couldn’t bring himself to watch a single game of the 2013 tourney.

A huge fishing fan, Napier consoled himself by watching shows such as "River Monsters" on Animal Planet instead. “I didn’t want to watch [the tournament] because I felt like if I did, I would be aggravated or annoyed,” he said.

Napier has been one of the best shows in college basketball this season. A likely first-team All-American, the 6-foot-1 senior leads Connecticut in scoring (17.8 PPG), rebounding (5.9 RPG), assists (4.9 APG) and steals (1.8 SPG), and he has a penchant for making plays when it counts.

He hit a game-winning buzzer-beater against Florida in early December, scored nine of his 24 points in overtime in UConn’s win over No. 10 seed St. Joseph’s to open this tournament, and followed that up with 25 points in a victory over second-seeded Villanova two days later.

Napier also scored 20 and 27 points in the Huskies' 2K Classic wins over Boston College and Indiana here back in November, and he believes his team has a definite advantage Friday night against No. 3 seed Iowa State, despite being the lower seed.

“The thing that would help us is our great fan base coming down and supporting us, like they always do,” Napier said. “When we are down and when we’re up, they are still cheering. They give us the support, they give us that sixth man that we need to push us forward.”

Teammate Ryan Boatright believes UConn’s familiarity with the Garden will be a big plus, too.

“It just feels like a second home to us,” Boatright said. “If you’ve never played here before, it’s definitely a different feeling -- the background, the rims ... the whole crowd is dark, just the court is lit up. Everything is different than playing in a regular college stadium.”

It is expected to be a heavily pro-Huskies crowd, with the Connecticut campus just 135 miles away. UConn has always drawn well at the Garden, making this historic ticket even hotter than it already would have been.

The Metro-North commuter railroad is adding an extra express train from New Haven, Conn., to Grand Central Terminal on Friday afternoon, and extra cars to other trains departing New Haven for New York as well (and vice versa at the end of the night).

As of late Thursday afternoon, the cheapest single ticket available on StubHub for Friday’s regional semifinal doubleheader (also featuring Virginia versus Michigan State) was $594.05 -- for a bar-stool seat no less.

Ollie and Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg, good friends and former teammates with the Chicago Bulls, have both played at the Garden many times.

“It’s special. I can’t say it’s not,” said Ollie, who later called it “the greatest arena alive for basketball.”

The Garden was the first thing Hoiberg brought up in his pregame news conference.

“I’ll start out just by saying how excited our team is to be out here in New York City,” he said. “Our guys get the opportunity to play at Madison Square Garden. I’ll never forget my first time here when the announcer comes on and says, ‘Welcome to Madison Square Garden, the world’s most famous arena.’”

Iowa State is used to playing in front of large crowds -- the Cyclones were ranked No. 22 in Division I home attendance this season, averaging 13,393 fans per game. But Ames, Iowa, is more than 1,000 miles away, and the Cyclones have played at the Garden only three times in school history, the last being an 84-81 loss to Rutgers in the semifinals of the 2004 NIT.

Heck, Iowa State forward Dustin Hogue, a native of nearby Yonkers, N.Y., had never even set foot in the Garden before Thursday’s open practice.

Hoiberg admitted some concern. “To come out and experience this is just awesome for our guys,” he said. “[But] you try to get the ‘wow’ factor out of the way as quickly as possible, so they can focus on the task at hand.”

The Cyclones did look a little more like tourists than the Huskies did when they walked on the floor two hours later. Hogue asked someone to take a picture of him at center court. Reserve forward Daniel Edozie pointed up at the giant overhead scoreboard in apparent glee.

But Hoiberg sounded confident that come Friday night, his team will be good to go.

“That’s been my message to them -- enjoy this day, in a very casual setting to go out there and get used to the shooting background and the rims,” he said. “Then tomorrow it’s all about business.

“Once that thing goes up tomorrow at 7:27, our guys will be ready to play.”