Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Of the teams that earned their way to the Final Four this weekend, none has as many story lines surrounding it as Connecticut.
First, head coach Kevin Ollie is leading the Huskies to the Final Four in just his second year after taking over for the legendary Jim Calhoun, who was on the sidelines for three national championships.
The redemption angle also could be taken. In Ollie's first season, the Huskies were unable to compete in the NCAA Tournament due to NCAA sanctions, but core players like Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright, DeAndre Daniels and Niels Giffey all decided to stay the course. Their loyalty has clearly paid off.
A look at who the Huskies will face provides further intrigue as they battle top-ranked Florida, a team they defeated on a buzzer-beater back in December, marking the last time any team came out on top against the Gators.
Of course, it must be remembered Napier was the player who made that game- winning shot against Florida, one of many clutch plays he has made in leading the Huskies this season. Some might even say he's in the same mold as former UConn great Kemba Walker.
Then there is the fact UConn is rolling into the Final Four in unlikely fashion. The Huskies are a No. 7 seed, but won the East Region after topping Villanova (2), Iowa State (3) and Michigan State (4) over the past few weeks.
So where to begin?
Let's start with Ollie. The former UConn guard was given the reins in September 2012, the same day Calhoun stepped away from a job he had held for 26 years.
An already massive challenge was that much harder considering Ollie had to deal with the punishments laid down by the NCAA for past recruiting violations by the program. The sanctions included scholarship reductions and a postseason ban for the 2012-13 season.
So for all the talent returning for Ollie, there wasn't much he could do other than keep the ship steady. He certainly accomplished that feat, leading the Huskies to a 20-10 season, which in all likelihood would have been enough for a NCAA Tournament invite if not for the sanctions.
Ollie doesn't take all of the credit for the team's ability to compete last season. He has not had to deal with rebuilding a program despite the heavy toll the NCAA actions could have taken.
"I thought they did a remarkable job last year, people saying they were playing for nothing, but they were playing for everything," Ollie said about the decision of many key players to stay in Storrs despite the postseason ban. "These kid are loyal. I believe in them. They believe in us. They also believe in what UConn is all about, what they can be successful in if they do go through this program."
Obviously, the trials the team faced last season helped forge the resiliency the 2014 squad has displayed all season. It was best illustrated over this past month. After the Huskies were routed by Louisville, 81-48, in the regular season finale, they made a run to the American Athletic Conference championship game and are now two wins away from a national title.
Napier was around the last time the Huskies were this close to the ultimate prize, which they claimed in his freshman season when Walker was drilling game-winners for the cause. Now a senior, Napier has been along for the entire rocky ride these last few years and he is finally getting the recognition he deserves, not only as a player, but as a leader of the program.
The 6-foot-1 guard tops the Huskies in just about every statistical category including scoring (18.1 ppg), assists (4.9 apg), rebounds (5.9 rpg) and steals (1.7 spg). Such numbers are very similar to those put forth by Walker in his senior season, which culminated in a national title. That is certainly a feat Napier would like the emulate as well.
The accolades have piled up just as the stats have for Napier, who was named an AP First Team All-American earlier this week after capturing the AAC Player of the Year award in mid-March.
His play in the NCAA Tournament has illustrated his strong will. He's scored a combined 93 points in the first four games, including a 25-point effort in Sunday's upset of Michigan State, a team many thought was a favorite to cut down the nets in Arlington, Texas, when all was said and done.
UConn's opponent in the Final Four is Florida, which already knows all about Napier, and how devastating he can be for others teams, especially in crunch time. Napier drilled the fall-away jumper off an offensive rebound as time expired to lift UConn to its 65-64 win over the Gators on Dec. 2.
That game has served as a source of inspiration for Ollie and his team throughout the season.
"I used it later on in the season, when we came with difficulties, weren't playing up to our capabilities, you put that tape in," Ollie said. "You played with those guys. You know what level we can play at. We'll get back to that. I think you see our guys rally around that and get back to that championship mentality in this tournament. It's been great to see."