Men's Basketball: UConn's road to Elite Eight a testament to loyalty, brotherhood
UConn forward DeAndre Daniels goes to the hoop against Iowa State Friday night at Madison Square Garden. JESS CONDON/The Daily Campus
NEW YORK - Kevin Ollie's playful slap to the face of Terrence Samuel made its way around the Internet following UConn's Sweet 16 victory over Iowa State.
Samuel had been making faces and some interesting hand gestures behind his coach; this is true. But what no one is talking about is the fact that after the Huskies secured their first trip to the Elite Eight since winning the 2011 national championship, the entire team stood with their coach through his interview, and they stayed there while DeAndre Daniels spoke with reporter Allie LaForce.
This has been a common characteristic of UConn over the past two seasons. The players often stand behind Ollie and their teammates during interviews, not to make funny faces, but to stand as brothers. And it started against Michigan State, who the Huskies will play Sunday for a trip to the Final Four.
"We got the win, and KO told everyone to get behind the camera," Daniels said, "because everybody does it together, and this team chemistry is just crazy. Everybody loves one another and everybody's playing for each other, and everybody's brothers on the team."
That was not the case during Daniels' freshman year, when the defending national champions looked like anything but. UConn was a team of individuals, a team of soon-to-be NBA defectors and guys who would rather transfer than stick with the Huskies through the impending postseason ban.
The 2011-12 season ended unceremoniously. Jeremy Lamb missed a meaningless dunk at the buzzer, and the Huskies were eliminated in the Round of 64 of the NCAA Tournament by Iowa State.
Off went Lamb and Andre Drummond, first-round picks in the NBA Draft. Roscoe Smith left for UNLV. Alex Oriakhi transferred to Missouri, a fact he flaunted, walking around in his new black and gold gear on campus for his final two months at UConn.
But there were players that chose to stay: Napier, Daniels, Niels Giffey, Ryan Boatright. And they are the players that kept UConn afloat.
"We didn't transfer because we're loyal to UConn and one another and the coaching staff," Daniels said.
"I felt like I owed this university a lot," Napier said. "I felt like after my first year we won, and the sophomore year I didn't play to my capabilities. I felt like I owed the university, as well as the coaches and my teammates, a good year."
That fire, that passion, that is what was missing from UConn during the 2011-12 season. It left the team separated.
"I was doing things that I wasn't definitely happy about," Napier said. "I isolated myself a lot when things were down. I didn't learn how to be a leader, even though I had one of the greatest leaders in front of me my freshman year. It was quite, I was quite flustered most of the time."
But the during the summer of 2012, the Huskies found the spark again. They found what was worth playing and fighting for, and they readied themselves for battle, even though they knew there was no physical prize at the other end.
"We wanted teams to be like, 'Why are they working so hard? Why are they playing so hard?'" Ollie said. "Everybody was saying we weren't playing for nothing...but we were playing for something. We were playing for what's on our jersey, and that means a lot.
"If you step on our campus and the pride we have for UConn, it means a lot to put on that jersey."
Every victory, every win that went overlooked by the outside world last season, it opened the doors to this: a chance to go to the Final Four.
"We all grew, everybody on the team," Daniels said. "And definitely not playing in the tournament last year, it definitely made us hungrier, and we grew from that. And we've just come out here, and we've been planting seeds since March."
Planting seeds. Of all the Ollieisms we have heard over the last two years, this is the one that has resonated in the players' heads. Everything with these Huskies is about planting seeds. They planted seeds in Memphis, Buffalo and now here in Manhattan.
That flower has got to be about ready to burst open, right?
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