Column: The three 'it' factors that keyed UConn's success
Besides those ever-rare exceptions, it really is true that numbers never lie. Still, there are some things that occur in sports that cannot be quantified by digits, percentages and decimals. Take UConn, for example. A team that lost to Louisville three times by a combined 55 points and twice to eventual NIT runner-up SMU was crowned national champion of college basketball Monday night in Texas. The Huskies went on a run for the ages, one that definitely triggers a few flashbacks to the 2011 postseason-when Kemba Walker won his final 11 games as a collegiate en route to an improbable third national title for the program. Now that his successor, Shabazz Napier, has delivered trophy No. 4 to Storrs, certain "it" factors cannot be ignored any longer.
Was UConn the best team in the country this year? Certainly not. The likes of Florida, Arizona, Wichita State, Wisconsin and Michigan all had better rosters than Connecticut, and up to Monday night they had more accomplished resumes as well. But what does that matter today? UConn got scorching hot at the perfect moment, and that ended up being bad news for St. Joe's, Villanova, Iowa State, Michigan State, Florida (for the second time this year) and Kentucky.
Napier was tremendous throughout the NCAA Tournament, but that had been the case from the opening tip in November. What about the others? As in, the guys that defied expectations, hushed all critics, and ignored the accolades of their opponent? I'm talking about the ones that went on the court, defended like absolute madmen, and did all the little things necessary to have the Hungry Huskies prevail over UK's youthful kittens. Without them, UConn would be nothing. But with them, UConn was able to throw out all the numbers-the higher seeds of their competition, the gaudy stats of the opposing coach and star player, and the recruiting rankings. Specifically, three "it" factors backed up Napier and took this group from a No. 7 seed to national champs. Not only do they deserve all the credit in the world, but they also are about to get all the credit in the world in this very column. (Side note: UConn wouldn't be cutting down the nets without Amida Brimah or Terrence Samuel, both of whom balled out themselves in the postseason.)
I'm trying to use as little numerical data as possible to support my "it" factor claims, however the following is one stat that cannot be ignored: UConn was 8-0 this season when Daniels went off for at least 18 points. The man that Husky Nation had been waiting on for three entire seasons to put the entire package together -and not just for one game, but rather for a steady stretch-answered the bell at last. Daniels was truly dazzling against St. Joe's, Iowa State and Florida, and he provided enough on both sides of the ball in the other three NCAA Tournament games to get the job done. Daniels knocked down perimeter jumpers with supreme confidence, and he got to the rim with a quick first step and ferocious vertical athleticism (two aspects that we really don't associate him with). He played poised, and he almost played pissed off, which brought out the best in him. On defense, too, a definitive weakness in his arsenal, Daniels held his own in the paint against guys like Michigan State's Branden Dawson, Florida's Patric Young and various bigs from Kentucky. The wiry 6-foot-9 junior may weigh in at under 195 pounds, but it's impossible to measure his heart-the heart that caused UConn to be at an advantage despite putting Daniels at the center position at times. Think about this: A crazy small lineup of Napier, Boatright, Lasan Kromah or Samuel, Niels Giffey and Daniels controlled the defensive glass and compensated for their shortness with their grittiness and quick hands. And on offense, Daniels was often in mismatch heaven-he surely made teams pay for that.
OK, OK, I know I said no stats, but I discovered yet another gem that is too good to pass up. With my mind on the DeAndre Daniels figure above, I went directly to Niels Giffey's game log to find something as equally as impressive. And I did just that: UConn was 12-0 this season when Giffey hauled down at least 5 rebounds. I think I love that more than I do Niels's beard. Coach Kevin Ollie said it best about Giffey after the win over Kentucky, when he was asked if he still had confidence in his German sniper breaking out of his mini shooting slump. Ollie said yes, of course he had faith in Giffey, who hit two major 3s in the second half for his first multi-triple game since St. Joe's, but he also gave Niels the ultimate coach-player compliment. Ollie praised Giffey for his ability to contribute beautifully despite not hitting shots, and it has been special to see the now two-time champ evolve into a jack-of-all-trades type. Freshman year, Jim Calhoun gave Giffey minutes for the same reason, but it is obvious that Giffey's on-ball defense, propensity to crash the boards, and aptitude to make plays off the bounce have all been enhanced and polished over the course of his career. Maybe all he was missing was a little swag, which he gained this past summer while playing with the German national squad against NBA players. (Never, never underestimate how an underclassmen spends his offseason-ask Nik Stauskas for more information.) Even with a few missed jumpers, some of which even teased the audience by going in-and-out, Giffey never let his shooting funk dictate his effort or his aggressiveness. He will leave Storrs with two rings, a few razors for shaving purposes and a guarantee to make money playing basketball somewhere overseas.
The best illustration of my (and many others) feelings toward Ryan Boatright is that of a seesaw. When Boatright was still in high school, I drove my home friends nuts by constantly showing them YouTube clips of Boatright's insane handles, and I couldn't wait until he got to the 860 to showcase that ball-on-a-string talent on a national stage. After his suspension eventually lifted his freshman season, Boatright was somewhat of an enigma-and he had been that in my opinion until this NCAA Tournament. He was the quickest and fastest guy on the team, but too often he seemed content with toying with his defender before pulling up for a lame, contested jumper. His decision making was questionable, and it quickly became apparent that he was nowhere near your prototypical point guard despite his petite frame. On defense, too, I longed for more from Boatright. He had all the tools to be a lockdown guy on the same level as Aaron Craft and Arizona's T.J. McConnell, but he preferred gambling for steals over sliding his feet, keeping his palms up, and beating his man to the spot. Then, something changed. After taking over 10 shots in a game a whopping 14 times in the regular season, he didn't eclipse the 1o-shot plateau one single time in 9 playoff games. That belongs on the Mount Rushmore of statistics. Boatright's efficiency skyrocketed, he was getting to the free throw line, and inexplicably he began knocking down the tough long two's and threes that he was missing earlier in the campaign. And on defense? Here's something I never thought I would write: Ryan Freaking Boatright was the best perimeter defender in the NCAA Tournament. Instead of opponents comfortably setting up offensive sets like it was a 5-on-0 practice, UConn forced teams like Michigan State and Kentucky to run their plays from way above the three-point arc. Boatright took pride in turning point guards a few times even before crossing half-court, and despite guarding the ball for such an extended period, he rarely fouled. Boatright learned to use his feet more than his hands, and it paid major dividends. Next year, with Napier gone and Daniels potentially headed to the NBA as well, I can't wait to see how Boatright handles the role of go-to guy while (hopefully) simultaneously preserving his new reputation as a defender you do not want to mess with.
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