Column: Loyal and unwavering
"Why did you stay?" a reporter asked UConn guard Ryan Boatright on Sunday afternoon.
Boatright pulled on the collar of his shirt. He has a lot of tattoos, but there is one that distinguishes itself, a word forever spelled out across his chest.
"That's all I know," Boatright said, donning his East Regional champions T-shirt and hat. "Growing up, loyalty is everything to me. I committed to UConn and Coach (Jim) Calhoun and the program. And just because we was going through some tough times don't mean we just leave. I stayed and I play for this program, and I'm reaping the benefits right now."
Boatright, and all those who stayed through the trying times of the past two seasons, are reaping those benefits.
It doesn't make sense to anyone outside Connecticut - and I'm sure there are some people in the state still scratching their heads - but the Huskies, those damned, ignored, left-for-dead Huskies are back in the Final Four.
There is a special feeling about this one, this fifth Final Four in program history, one that trumps the feeling of any of the previous four.
This improbable, incalculable run, this one is the most important, because this is the one that took the most work. This is the one that keeps UConn on the map. This is the one that says that wherever the Huskies are, they are going to be a force to be reckoned with.
And it shows that a family united can do pretty much anything.
UConn has been to hell and back almost an infinite number of times in the last few years. The postseason ban for 2012-13 put the program in a rough situation itself, but then Jim Calhoun retired before the season. Five players transferred or turned pro. Kevin Ollie was given a seven-month contract and told to go coach a team that lacked any form of cohesion five months earlier.
At that point, the Big East was already on its way to the grave. And as the conference dwindled towards oblivion, the - well, I would use the word "powers," but I'm about to mention Rutgers - football-playing members of the Big East got snapped up: West Virginia to the Big 12, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Louisville and Notre Dame to the ACC, Rutgers to the Big Ten.
Adversity is far from a strong enough word to describe what this program has faced over the last few years. It has been nothing but pure hell, and it almost destroyed this program.
But thanks to Ollie and thanks to the loyalty of Boatright, Shabazz Napier, Niels Giffey, Tyler Olander and DeAndre Daniels, a broken unit became one, and this program stayed on top, even when no one was taking notice.
"It's one big family," Olander said, "and I think it's shown through all the determination that we showed last year, and all the grit and grind that we pulled out to get to where we are now, that it's just really remarkable what we're doing."
Whatever happens in Texas, this has been the most important Final Four run of the five. It kept a family together, and it allowed UConn Country to keep believing.
You hear that, Big Ten and ACC, pass over UConn all you want. They'll keep winning.
It's what we do around here.
Follow Tim on Twitter @Tim_Fontenault
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