They Stayed: How UConn's Upperclassmen Saved the Program

Elsa

Shabazz Napier. Ryan Boatright. Niels Giffey. All three of which could have easily gone the route of Alex Oriakhi and Roscoe Smith by transferring out of UConn after being administered a one-year postseason ban... and no one would have blamed them. But they didn't. They stayed.

After winning the championship on the back of Kemba Walker, the 2011-2012 UConn Huskies wound up being somewhat of a disappointment, going from #4 in the AP poll to unranked and a first round, NCAA Tournament exit. Legendary coach and three-time champion Jim Calhoun announced his retirement, while former player and long-time assistant Kevin Ollie took the reigns for the first head coaching job of his career.

Ollie's first year in the Big East would also be his last, as conference realignment led to the death of what was once a great conference. The next time UConn would play in a conference tournament it wouldn't be the Big East, and it wouldn't be at Madison Square Garden. For the time being, this was a team without a home.

If times weren't suddenly trying enough for this program after such a high the year prior, then came even worse news: Due to low Academic Progress Rate scores in years past, the UConn men's basketball program was issued a one-year postseason ban by the NCAA.

Jeremy Lamb and Andre Drummond elected to enter the NBA Draft. Alex Oriakhi transferred to Missouri, Roscoe Smith to UNLV. Soon-to-be juniors Shabazz Napier and Niels Giffey, along with sophomore guard Ryan Boatright, decided to stick it out, though, and enter the 2012-2013 season as Huskies.

In a year where UConn lost four key players, had no bigs, a rookie coach and nothing to play for, this team could have folded up the tent. Would you have been surprised? Would you have even blamed them? But that's not what happened. Led by their dynamic guards in Napier and Boatright, along with Giffey, an ever-improving shooter, Connecticut finished the season with a 20-10 record, including improbable wins over #14 Michigan State, #17 Notre Dame and, in their final conference rivalry game, #5 Syracuse.

Fast forward to the 2013-2014 season. Now in the American Athletic Conference, a conference thrown together out of necessity, even though they were eligible and believed by many to make an appearance in the NCAA Tournament, UConn entered the season with tempered expectations. The Huskies started the season unranked, but quickly moved up the polls after a 9-0 start. One of those nine wins came over the Florida Gators, the future #1 overall seed in the Tournament, at Gampel Pavilion. It was a game of runs but in the end, Shabazz was just too much for the Gators to contain.

Trailing by three down the stretch, Napier drilled a shot from behind-the-arc and drew a foul to send him to the line where he converted on a four-point play and gave the Huskies the lead. After the SEC Player of the Year Scottie Wilbekin drove to the basket to re-take the lead, it was Shabazz time. After dribbling through a Florida trap, Napier missed badly, but when a DeAndre Daniels quick tip-out found him with the ball in his hands once again, he wouldn't miss a second time, nailing the shot from the free throw line at the buzzer to give UConn their most impressive win of the season.

Fast forward four months. UConn and Florida will face off once again—this time for much bigger stakes. Leaving would have been taking the easy way out. These players don't take the easy way out. They work. They sweat. They bleed. They stayed. Most of all, these players exemplify Ollie's first comments as head coach: "Escalators are for cowards. We gonna take the stairs, and we gonna get there one step at a time." That's who they are, and it's led them to an incredible postseason run.

They've beaten 10th seeded St. Joe's, a hot pick by many to make a deep run of their own. They've beaten old Big East rival and 2-seed Villanova. They've exacted revenge on the 3-seed Iowa State and 4-seed—not to mention the team widely viewed as the soon-to-be national champions—Michigan State, who were the last two teams to have knocked UConn out of their previous tournaments.

They've defied all odds to get where they are.

Shabazz Napier. Ryan Boatright. Niels Giffey. They stayed. Now, they're in the Final Four, and the University of Connecticut Men's Basketball program is prominent once again.

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