That is undoubtedly what UConn is now. They are elite. One of the Elite Eight teams left standing in this battle royale known as March Madness and a cool 40 minutes away from the Final Four.
Let that sink in for a moment, because it's been a short yet long road back to this point. The miracle run to championship glory was a few short years ago in 2011, but the "since then" part of the UConn story has been so bad, so negative, so filled with moments made to be forgotten, it's felt like a decades-long drought of being on the national stage.
In fact, the last time UConn was on the national stage, they were unceremoniously being shown the door by none other than Iowa State, which put a cap on a disappointing year and one of the more disappointing teams in Husky history.
With post season bans and a change in conference, not to mention the departure of the program's great builder Jim Calhoun, a lot of people, A LOT OF THEM, left this program for dead.
But here they are. Elite. Once again.
UConn got to Sunday's game by playing yet another great team-effort game. In the middle of the year most Husky fans (most loudly yours truly) wondered how in the world the Huskies could win anything relying so heavily on one player to do so much. Shabazz Napier was Mr. Everything … the guy you expected to do it all in order to lead the team to victory.
But in this three-game march in March, it's been a contribution from nearly everyone that's taken them this far, and that was yet again true on Friday night.
The unquestioned star of the show at MSG, which was a complete home-game atmosphere for the Huskies, was DeAndre Daniels. With Daniels, it's always been about holding your breath for the "light to go on" and the kid to fully realize how good he can be. Over the course of his time at UConn we've seen the glimpses – the flash of incredible basketball talent that makes him look like an NBA player stopping by a local YMCA to put on a show for the locals. Then we've seen long stretches where Daniels has looked lost … unable to impact a game in any way, shape, or form.
In the first two games against St. Joe's and Villanova, Daniels was very good. Against Iowa State he was every bit that player we've believed he could be.
In his 27 point 10 rebound performance, Daniels made every kind of play imaginable. He hit threes. He drove inside. He had put back layups and dunks. He had fade-away jumpers. In the second half of that game, he literally imposed his will on a very good Iowa State team. There was no give up in Daniels. If he missed a shot, he showed the confidence to take it the next time down the floor. At one point in the second half, after Daniels had scored yet another basket forcing State's Fred Hoiberg to call a time out, cameras caught Napier telling Daniels, "You're a f***ing beast. You're an animal."
He was – a calm, cool, and collected animal.
But he wasn't alone.
Napier had the Garden at a fevered pitch right from the beginning of the game hitting four straight three point shots and easily winning the battle against other highly thought-of guard DeAndre Kane. Napier finished with 19 points, 5 assists and 5 rebounds, but his numbers are only part of the equation. Shabazz quickly recognized in the second half that Daniels was a man on fire, and instead of trying to force anything, Napier instead fed the hot hand. His drives to the basket led, often times, to layups for Daniels, and they played the pick and role perfectly to where every time Daniels set the screen and Iowa State doubled Napier, it left the lanky forward open for a three. One quick pass and Daniels was shooting it.
Napier was also one of many Huskies who continued this team's stellar contributions from the charity stripe, where the Huskies ended up putting the game away with near-flawless shooting.
And Ryan Boatright continued to play the most inspired basketball of his, ending with 16 points, 2 assists, 2 rebounds, and some very good defense on the perimeter. It seemed that Boatright was able to get over the top of every Iowa State screen set and harass the shooter into taking a bad shot or pass.
Yet the surprise of this tournament has, without a doubt, been Terrence Samuel. He was perhaps the most important player for UConn during the Nova game as his play allowed Kevin Ollie to sit Shabazz Napier for most of the first half when foul problems arose, and he was a huge part of last night's game. Samuel had 10 points, the only other Husky not named Daniels, Napier, or Boatright to score double-digits, and it seemed each of his baskets came at a big moment. Samuel was also put at the line late in this game when Iowa State was making a charge and a few misses by the freshman would have really made for anxious moments late in the game. Instead, the young man calmly knocked them all down, keeping Iowa State from ever really, truly threatening to come all the way back from the 10 point halftime deficit and 17 point second half hold UConn put them in.
We can say that the future looks bright with Samuel, but the future is right now.
The biggest shot of the night, however – the dagger, so to speak – came once again from UConns sharp-shooting senior Niels Giffey. With the game nearing a close, Iowa State cut the Husky lead to four and looked to have all the momentum. Boatright drove to the hole on the Husky's next possession and passed it out to Giffey, waiting patiently in the corner behind the line. Giffey had been fighting his way through a bad game. He'd missed some open threes early in the game in bad fashion and was getting abused on the interior by Iowa State's front line. But Giffey is a senior and a shooter, and with Iowa State looking to come al the way back and break UConn's heart at MSG, Giffey stepped up and buried the three.
Seven point lead. Huskies on their way to the Elite Eight.
All the credit in the world should go to Iowa State. They played a gritty game and had no quit in them. Dustin Hogue was a man on the inside, scoring 34 points and doing what he liked for most of the game, and Kane, despite a bad shooting night and being very bad from the line, was still able to fill up the box score Shabazz-style, with 16 points, 8 rebounds, and 6 assists. Had Iowa State not lost Georges Niang in the first game of the tournament, maybe things would have been different for them. And perhaps, had UConn not been playing in what Napier described as "home number three" for the Huskies, the furious comeback wouldn't have fallen short.
But Fred Hoiberg's crew has nothing to be ashamed of. UConn is simply on a bit of a carpet ride right now, and who knows when it will end. This is the best basketball they've played all year long and the most complete they've looked in a long time.
Now, they take the show against Michigan State on Sunday, 2:20 p.m. tip off. I'm not going to lie, this seems like a nightmare matchup for the Huskies. MSU is big and strong, and they play smash mouth basketball. This is where UConn's inability to really have an inside presence (aside from Brimah) may finally bite them.
But it also may be a perfect time for revenge. Am I the only one that remembers how MSU received what amounted to a home game in the Final Four against UConn in 2009? Well, now the tides have been turned. Sure there will be some MSU fans in the Garden Sunday, but I’d expect another big turnout for Husky Nation. Let's show these boys how we do things in the northeast baby.
Either way, the one thing we do know is that UConn is 40 minutes away from pay dirt. Forty minutes away from the Final Four.
How ELITE it is.