No one could have seen UConn in the Final Four, aside from those delusional folks who dream impossible dreams in Storrs, Connecticut. Their Huskies went into the NCAA Tournament as a No. 7 seed, and seeds that low get knocked out long before the Elite Eight.
But here we are, a day away from the semifinal games in Arlington, Texas, and coach Kevin Ollie has the Huskies where nobody thought they would be: two wins from a NCAA title.
And how did Ollie do it?
That might be the biggest mystery of the tournament. OK, sure, the success of the Dayton Flyers confounded bracketologists, too. But Dayton saw its run to glory stopped before the airplane ride to Texas. Their success ruined a lot of brackets, showing how little the so-called hoops experts knew about grit and pluck and great coaching.
They were so wrong about Dayton. Yet not as wrong as all of those experts and brackets that didn’t have UConn in their Final Four.
The Huskies are there because Ollie outcoached Tom Izzo last Sunday. Ollie denied Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans points inside and took his chances on their suspect outside shooting. His was a smart move.
From there, Ollie put the game in the capable hands of a senior guard named Shabazz Napier, a holdover from the last UConn team to win a NCAA title, when Kemba Walker was its star guard.
Walker is now taking home big checks from the NBA; so should Napier after this NCAA season ends.
Yet the Huskies are more about Ollie than about the guards the team puts on the floor. He’s a UConn alumnus; he’s the former NBA nomad whose reputation as a brainy point guard has translated into a brainy coach; and he’s the handpicked successor of Jim Calhoun, who put UConn basketball on the NCAA map.
It’s not easy to replace a Hall-of-Fame coach like Calhoun; no one has claimed Ollie has. He’s too fresh into the coaching business to ascribe greatness to him just yet. He hasn’t touched 45, and what coach has been anointed with that title before he’s won a championship?
The team’s return to the Final Four is a high-five to Ollie and what he has been able to do, but it’s also a reminder how unpredictable March Madness is.
Since the field expanded to 64 in 1985, not a single No. 7 seed has reached this land of promise, a place where memories live forever and heroes named Walker, Magic, Walton, Smart and Jordan build their legacies.
The Final Four is also the place where coaches cement theirs. Calhoun did; John Wooden did; Bob Knight did; Dean Smith did; Coach K did; Roy Williams did; Jim Valvano did; John Thompson did; Tark did; and Izzo did.
Now, it could be Kevin Ollie’s turn. Can he do it?
That’s why games are played. It doesn’t matter what the studio experts, the fans or the bracketologists say. Ollie has his chance, which is more than Izzo, Self, Williams, Rick Pitino and other coaching icons can say one day before the Final Four starts.
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