There are over 300 DI college basketball schools in the country. Only 16 of them will be playing come this weekend.
One of them will be UConn.
Sometimes we have a tendency to overlook what an accomplishment that is, especially in Husky Nation which has luckily, blessedly become accustomed to playing in at least the second weekend of NCAA Tournament games. When you're UConn or UNC or Duke or Kentucky or pick your big-name college program, success is expected and only celebrated when it reaches a certain point.
But being one of only 16 teams left standing, when so many of the "blue bloods" of the sport couldn't find a way to win two games in this Russian Roulette tournament, should never be diminished.
And for UConn, their trip into the second weekend is extremely important, for a variety of reasons.
Before the Tournament even began, I wrote about how winning in March means the world to both coaches and, subsequently, their programs. Kevin Ollie can rack up all the regular season wins he wants. He can motivate his players, he can come up with great one-liners, and he can get the entirety of Husky Nation on his side. Yet, without victory in March, much of that is useless. Ollie would simply remain the guy not named Jim Calhoun doing a pretty good job under difficult circumstances.
Kevin Ollie is a winning coach in March. He's his own man. And this program is his.
Ollie found a way to get his team past a gritty, gutty St. Joe's team that controlled that game almost all the way through. Then he came up with a game plan that knocked off the number 2 team in the region … old Big East rival Villanova. If you're marking at home, that's a survive-and-advance moment in a game that UConn probably should have lost, and then a beat-the-higher-seeded-team victory that came in convincing fashion. Besides going to a Final Four and winning an NCAA championship, that's about as good as it gets for a coach making his first March appearance.
Why is this important? Because as we learned this weekend, the shadow of Jim Calhoun still looms large. Just some unconfirmed reports that he was possibly interested in the Boston College job threatened to completely overshadow the game against Villanova. For a lot of people outside of Storrs, Jim Calhoun is still the name and face of the program.
A trip to the Sweet Sixteen helps change that. Ollie having such success his first time out helps change that. Letting the world outside of Storrs know that UConn is in very capable hands is helped by UConn's trip to MSG.
This also helps for recruiting.
The first two rounds of the Tournament are this jumbled, exciting, exquisite mess of upsets and last-second buzzer beaters. It's about the teams that surprised and the teams that disappointed. It's in my opinion four of the most enjoyable days in sports. But when you get to the Sweet Sixteen, it feels like some of the madness has subsided. The more serious players in the tournament have survived.
The real-deal cinderella's have separated themselves from the one-hit wonders that had a lone great game inside them. The best big-boy high seeds survived the early-round carnage to move a step closer to their ultimate goal. And the late-blooming teams with talent but inconsistency showed they are ready to put it all together.
The Sweet Sixteen is where we get the Louisville/Kentucky games. It's where we get a lot of known teams with known players really making a push to something special.In other words, the Sweet Sixteen is really where the men and boys have been separated.
Of course UConn's season would be a greater achievement if they won one or two (or three or four) more games this year. Of course being one of the final eight, or four, or two teams is more impressive than being one of the last 16 standing. But for UConn, they can hold their head high from this point forward. They are one of this year's elite clubs of the tournament, no matter how you slice it, and making a Sweet Sixteen makes recruiting a whole lot easier.
I mean, Kevin Ollie is going to be on the recruiting trail this entire week without ever leaving his hotel room. There will be interviews. There will be exposes. Ollie will be out there talking up his players and his program from now through Friday. Oh, and then he gets another game on national television to show kids a style of basketball that will probably appeal to them.
For a second-year coach, even one at a school as established as UConn, that's so very valuable. It allows him to show the world who Kevin Ollie is, and what he's capable of doing when the chips are down. That helps them push past any problems the AAC or conference tournament games in half-empty Memphis could present.
Playing Friday at MSG also helps the players immeasurably. Let's be honest, it seems like UConn has been out of March play for an eternity. Of course that's not the case … it was just three years ago that they won a national championship with one of the great runs of all time. However, the disappointment of the following year (underachieving squad that lost in the opening round) coupled with the ban last year, added to the overall negativity surrounding the entire program, just seemed to add time onto the clock. In sports, just like in life, the world is always asking "yeah, but what have you done for me lately?"
There hasn't been as much of an opportunity for Shabazz Napier to showcase his abilities. When UConn won the championship in his freshman year, Shabazz played third fiddle behind Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb .. and sometimes his fiddle got pushed back even further. The following season, Napier, rightly or wrongly, became the symbol of the Husky's frustrating year. His talent was oftentimes overshadowed by his erratic play. While Kemba had been a natural leader, Shabazz seemed to always be forcing the issue, not knowing when to show support or disapproval for his teammates effort and/or performance.
Last year is when Shabazz really came into his own, but it came during a year where after a while no one was really paying attention other than Husky fans. Uconn wasn't going to be allowed to play on the sport's biggest stage and to many, that's the only stage that matters. His maturation went quietly unnoticed.
Now, however, Shabazz is getting his pub. He's playing great (especially against Nova) when the lights are brightest. Don't think that matters? Don't think NBA scouts are watching this tournament? You're nuts.
We see guys have great tournaments and get drafted higher than expected all the time. Hell, even Kemba might not have been drafted as high as he was had Uconn bowed out quietly in 2011.
Point: For Shabazz, getting to this second weekend the way he has will pay big dividends come June.
That's also true for everyone else on the squad. No one in the country cares that Boatright had a very up-and-down year (mostly down, if you ask me) right now, because he's been great these last two games. Same with Daniels. They've put their talents on display.
Same goes for Giffey, who's shown an ability to both shoot the three and grab some rebounds. I'm not sure that gets him a spot on an NBA team but I'll all but guarantee he has a better chance now than he did when this tournament started.
And is there anyone in the country, after watching Terrence Samuel play huge minutes against Nova, who doesn't believe they'll be seeing him in March several times throughout the course of his college career?
And finally, UConn going to the Sweet Sixteen helps the American. Sure, it would have been nice if Memphis was more competitive against Virginia, or if Cinci had showed up against Harvard. Tulsa, a future member of the conference, winning a game against UCLA, would have also helped.
However, on the basketball side of things, UConn is unquestionably still top dog. They are the banner program. They are the most important (basketball) school in the conference, bar none. With UConn showing they can still be an elite program, the American can sell a future basketball conference built around a power house. When the promo video is put together, they can proudly showcase Jonathan and know that image still carries weight.
Look, I want the Elite Eight. I want to beat Iowa State (which I believe they can). I want to make a miracle run to the Final Four. For a program so used to success, a Sweet Sixteen berth should be expected, not reveled in. However, after everything this coach, these players, and this athletic department as a whole has been through, winning these two games and getting to a spot only 16 other teams have managed to arrive at is exceptional. You want more, I want more, and all of Husky Nation wants more … but we need to acknowledge how much has already been achieved.
Now … go beat the crap out of Iowa State.