What a difference a year makes. Last year at this time the Connecticut Huskies were sitting at home watching post-season play due to a post-season ban. Now Coach Kevin Ollie and his crew prepare to take on Florida at the Final Four in his hometown of Dallas.
I was there in Storrs for the first day of practice this season and it was clear rebounding would probably be the biggest factor in Connecticut’s success this season. Ollie wanted the team to have a positive rebounding margin but wouldn’t put specific goals on the team, “why limit them?” he said.
Senior Niels Giffey told me, “We have to step it up. We have a bigger line up, a couple more bodies that will help but in the end it is all mental.” The bodies he was referring to was 6-6 George Washington transfer Lasan Kromah and 7-0 freshmen Amida Brimah from Ghana. Brimah had a productive stat line of four points, three rebounds and over two blocks per game in just 16 minutes of playing time.
While they did end up with a slightly positive rebound margin at .4 they did increase their rebounding from 33 to 35 per game that includes 25.26 defensive rebounds per game 72nd in the country. The 6-1 All-American guard Shabazz Napier is tied for the team lead in rebounding with 6-9 DeAndre Daniels at 5.9 per game.
Napier increased his rebounding by 1.5 a game up from 4.4 last season. Daniels, Giffey and guard Ryan Boatwright all increased their rebounding over last season, buying into the gang rebounding mindset the team needed for the Huskies to succeed.
Connecticut was talented but no one knew what kind of season they could have, Napier said,”I expect us to continue to push ourselves and strive to be the best team we can be.” So far they certainly have, finishing the regular season at 24-7 which included a 65-64 win over their opponent on Saturday, Florida. They made a trip to the American Athletic Conference Tournament finals where they fell to Louisville and dispatched St. Joseph’s, Villanova, Iowa State and Michigan State on their way to Dallas.
The current run by the Huskies is giving their fans fond memories of 2011 when the team finished the season on an 11-game winning streak and winning the national championship led by another dynamic guard in Kemba Walker. As soon as the Big East Tournament began, Walker to over propelling Connecticut to five wins in five days for a conference title then a six-game run to the NCAA title.
During their run Napier is doing his best Walker impression by averaging 23.3 points, six rebounds and 4.5 rebounds per game. Those kind of numbers will have to on Saturday if Connecticut hopes to knock off the tournament’s #1 overall seed in the Gators. What a difference a year makes indeed.