How a postseason APR ban fueled UConn’s run to a title
April 8, 2014 § Leave a comment
With his college career complete and his second national championship in hand, Connecticut guard Shabazz Napier stood tall on a dais placed in the middle of AT&T Stadium and thanked a most unlikely ally: the NCAA.
“Ladies and gentlemen, you’re looking at the hungry Huskies,” Napier said. “This is what happens when you ban us.”
Minutes later, after UConn had cut down the nets in celebration and amid a sea of red-and-blue-tinted confetti, UConn athletic director Warde Manuel reflected on Napier’s remark, pausing briefly before replying with simple approval.
“Great,” Manuel said.
Meet the Huskies, a team and program forged by the disappointment of a one-year postseason ban, and a team – like so many before it – that rode an unflappable us-against-the-world mindset to a most improbable national title.
“Coach (Kevin) Ollie told us, this going to be a two-year plan, and since that day on we believed,” Napier said. “Like said, man, I just wanted to grab everybody’s attention and introduce the hungry Huskies, because it’s been two years.
“We worked so hard for this. We didn’t want to lose it. We worked so hard. So here we go, celebrating.”
Said forward Leon Tolksdorf, “I feel like last season we still had a good season. We used the season to get even closer as a team. Our goal was to show everybody what we were capable of and eventually show them this year.”
UConn was placed under a one-year ban in 2012 for low scores in the Academic Progress Rate, a measurement used by the NCAA to calculate eligibility and graduation rates for its member universities. In UConn’s case, the ban came as a result of an APR score of 889, below the benchmark for postseason eligibility.
The score was largely a measurement of past Huskies, not the then-current team: The 889 APR score was calculated during the course of a four-year stretch from 2007-11, before many players had enrolled in the university.
Star guard Shabazz Napier celebrates the Huskies’ national championship. The senior book-ended his career with a second NCAA title after winning as a freshman in 2011.(Photo: Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY Sports)
“I was just a little upset that we were being punished for guys ahead of us,” senior Tyler Olander said, “but at the same time, we know it’s a family here at UConn, so those guys who came ahead of us are still part of the family.”
The impact of the ban was felt almost immediately. In terms of personnel, the ineligibility led several players to consider transferring to another program; these thoughts were strengthened in September, when longtime coach Jim Calhoun retired on the eve of the season opener, acknowledging “there have been some bumps in the road.”
One player who waffled on his commitment to UConn was Napier, who was convinced to remain in the fold by Ollie’s full-court pitch in the days after he was named as Calhoun’s interim successor.
“That was my No. 1 recruit,” Ollie said. “I wanted to make sure he understood that it’s going to be a program that’s going to be the same.”
The Huskies have certainly retained a Calhoun-era feel, from the program’s defense-first mentality to, of course, the bottom line: UConn’s latest national title is its fourth overall, joining Calhoun’s trio in 1999, 2004 and 2011.
This year’s roster even bears Calhoun’s overwhelming fingerprint. Napier, Ryan Boatright, Niels Giffey, DeAndre Daniels and Olander – four of Monday night’s starting five – were signed by the previous staff, leaving Ollie with a stocked cupboard of experienced hands.
But several players spoke of one subtle tweak by Ollie and the then-new staff in 2012: UConn’s roster – from stars through walk-ons – was placed under a stronger academic microscope, a natural byproduct of diminishing APR returns.
Mandatory study halls. Tutors. Class checks. “If you miss a class you were up at 6 a.m. running,” Olander said.
VIDEO: What’s next for the 2014 Final Four teams?
The result was a program refocused, not to mention a team constantly reminded of the bitter taste of postseason rejection – with players like Napier primed for the opportunity to make up for lost time.
“They were underdogs the entire way, and that gives you added motivation,” American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco said. “Let’s remember this team held together under adverse circumstances. You know, they couldn’t go to the tournament last year and some transferred, but this core group stayed together.
“They believed in Kevin. He had a great year last year. They were ineligible, but he had a great year. And then this year he follows it up with this.”
Ollie has “set a championship culture,” Manuel said, one with roots in the humbling postseason ban, the nadir to Monday night’s apex.
“The tough times are not going to define who we are,” Manuel said. “We’re going to define who are as an institution, and continue to grow and continue the culture of winning and preparing ourselves off the court and on the court, off the playing field and on. That’s what we’re doing, and that’s what this represents.”