NEW YORK -- The old coach was defiant, because defiance is all he has ever known. For so many years he awakened defiant and fell asleep defiant and on the force of that epic stubbornness, a college in the farmlands of Connecticut won three NCAA championships. This was only slightly different. Late Sunday afternoon Madison Square Garden shuddered with adoration for the University of Connecticut's new coach and its new star and in celebration of the program's fifth trip to the Final Four, earned in a bloody 60-54 East Regional victory over Michigan State.
Jim Calhoun, 71, won 625 games in 27 seasons as UConn's head coach and transformed a modest regional basketball program into a national power. He retired in the autumn of 2012 just a month before the start of the season, so late that the school had little choice but to hire his hand-picked successor, Kevin Ollie, to succeed him, a last demonstration of that same defiance. Now as Huskies faithful, bathed in blue and white (an absurd number of them former players), stood in rapture while the regional trophy was hoisted, Calhoun stood at the side of the floor and gestured in the general direction of that crowd (which had erupted in an ear-splitting ovation when he was shown on the Garden's big screen during the game).
"People have been saying for two years that UConn basketball disappeared,'' said Calhoun. "Well, look at that up in those seats. UConn basketball never disappeared. It's a huge misnomer that we went anywhere.''
Actually, it's not a misnomer at all. It's very nearly a painful truth. Moments after Calhoun's proclamation, Ollie ascended a shimmering aluminum ladder with yellow rubberized steps, an act that is always freighted with symbolism. Every team that reaches the Final Four climbed up from somewhere. He clattered five steps up from the bottom, high enough to hack off the last two strands of the net with NCAA-issued scissors (truth), and then waved the net at the Connecticut fans before cupping his left hand to his ear in search of more noise. Which he got.
It would all have been more appropriate if Ollie had climbed to slice the nylon from a hole dug 10 feet into the Garden floor. Because two years after winning an unlikely national championship in 2011, UConn basketball did disappear into a grave partly of its own making and partly from the odd and capricious forces of modern college athletics.
UConn is back now, suddenly and unexpectedly, a No. 7 seed from a low-rent conference of football orphans that took down a team from the biggest conference realignment bully of them all, the Big Ten. The Huskies are back because senior Shabazz Napier is a truly transcendent college guard, a tough and spectral offensive player descended directly from his former teammate, Kemba Walker, who very nearly carried that 2011 team to the title on his undersized back. "What Kemba did, that can never be done again,'' said Napier, sitting on a bench in the Connecticut locker room an hour after the game. "But I learned from him, and I've tried to make my own path.''
Napier's performance on Sunday was less sublime than two nights earlier, when he staggered Iowa State with four three-point baskets in the first nine minutes of the game, but he scored a gritty 25 points that included the last five meaningful points -- on a jumper and three free throws -- of the game. His backcourt partner, junior Ryan Boatright, scored 11 points but also had four steals in a suffocating defensive performance against any Michigan State guard in front of him. Their combined defensive work enabled Connecticut to smother Michigan State's big men, in particular 6-foot-10 senior forward Adreian Payne (4-for-14 shooting) with double-teams. "Boatright initiating with pressure out front, double the bigs inside,'' said Ollie. "That was the plan.''
The Huskies (30-8) will play next Saturday in the Final Four against Florida (36-2). The Gators are the No. 1 overall seed in this tournament, but UConn handed Florida one of its two defeats, 65-64 on Dec. 2 at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, Conn.
It is remarkable that any of this is on the table as April chases March off the 2014 calendar. On the night of April 4, 2011 at Houston's Reliant Stadium, UConn, Calhoun and most of all Kemba Walker completed a stunning month-long climb from possible NCAA tournament exclusion to a 53-41 victory over Butler for the school's third national championship in 12 years. The ensuing 24 months would demonstrate just how quickly a mighty program can fall to the brink of irrelevance (and the next 12, how quickly it can rise).
In June of 2012, 14 months after the national title, Connecticut became the first BCS conference school banned from the NCAA basketball tournament for failing to meet minimum academic standards as measured by the Academic Progress Report. The university appealed the decision on the basis of improving results, but was denied. The statistics did not involve any players on the 2012-13 roster, but those would be the players punished. It was an embarrassment to a college that has pushed its academic agenda and called into question the cost of indulging a worship of basketball success. It also stained Calhoun's legacy because the academic failures occurred on his watch.
Three months after the ban was announced, Calhoun stepped down. With time too short for a full search, Connecticut athletic director Warde Manuel named Ollie, just two years removed from the last year of a 13-year, 11-team NBA career, as the head coach. He was given a seven-month contract. In a sport that is increasingly defined only by March and April, absence from the tournament is a crushing blow.
But the oddest thing happened. Pushed by Ollie's infectious and no-nonsense passion ("It's like playing for [your] brother," says sophomore forward Phillip Nolan), UConn's talented core players -- Napier, Boatright, then-rising sophomore DeAndre Daniels (who scored 29 points in Friday's regional semifinal win over Iowa State) and Niels Giffey -- decided to stay. The season began with a stunning 66-62 win over Michigan State on a U.S. Army base in Germany and on Dec. 29, Manuel gave Ollie a five-year contract. The Huskies won 20 games and when the season ended on March 9 with a 63-59 overtime win over Providence in Storrs, they were not just survivors, but a team.
"Last year might have been a good thing,'' said Giffey, standing in the middle of the UConn locker room after Sunday's win. "Everybody knew we weren't going to the tournament. Everybody knew we weren't playing for a championship. We had a new coach coming in, but there was no pressure on our backs. No pressure on his back. That year we became more professional.''
"Yeah, there were times when it wasn't great," Boatright said. "But we learned to a be a team. We didn't worry about anything else.''
Before Saturday's game, Ollie had been asked how he motivated a team that, in others' description, had nothing to play for. "We had something to play for,'' Ollie said. "We played for [the name] on the jersey.''
Napier said, "It was a matter of becoming more mature. You can fold or you can go fight.''
Many of them didn't watch any of last year's NCAA tournament. "I just would have gotten mad,'' Giffey said. It was the foundation for what has become a sensational year. But even after surviving the ban, the path has not been linear or smooth. First Napier, a vital part of the 2011 team as Walker's understudy, had to eschew leaving for the NBA. Which he did. "The university stayed loyal to me,'' he said. Napier, who is listed at 6-foot-1, is not considered a certain NBA lottery pick, but a very likely high draft pick.
With those pieces in place, UConn was hit with another blow, and another one that it saw coming for a long time. In March 2013, the traditional Big East conference, which had been vital to Connecticut's rise, disbanded. A group of basketball schools left to form a new Big East, and Connecticut, which is yet to attract interest from power conferences, was left as a founding member of the ill-named American Athletic Conference.
This complicated the task of recovery, present and future. Connecticut is not Kentucky or Indiana or UCLA, schools with such tradition that they will always rise again. From the pain of academic sanctions and the obscurity of the AAC, UConn could fall far off the radar. NCAA success is a must, until -- if -- a new conference is found.
Enter Napier, the senior. After losing to both SMU and Houston on a road trip that straddled New Year's Day, Connecticut won 15 of its last 20 games, with three of the losses coming to powerful Louisville (including the AAC title game). Napier averaged 17.8 points a game and was named a first team All-America. Calhoun recognized the image. "We had the best player in the country on our team,'' he said. "You can win a lot of games like that." (Regarding Calhoun, if he is to be held accountable for the academic mess that led to the APR ban, he should also be given credit for recruiting almost every significant member of Ollie's current team.)
With under two minutes remaining in Sunday's regional final, Michigan State had drawn within 51-49 in a stuttering, physical game of inartistic runs and body blows. UConn fans dominated the Garden, but now sat desperate. Napier attacked the heart of the Michigan State defense and buried a jumper to extend the lead back to four points. The Spartans answered and now Napier stood near half court, bleeding the shot clock and then pulling up from 25 feet and drawing a foul from Michigan State's Keith Appling.
Napier walked to the line, a program's past and future in his hands. Three times he shot, three times the ball fell through the net. Each was a step up from the hole, a step closer to the ladder.