STORRS — Jim Calhoun remembers meeting Niels Giffey at Gampel Pavilion in the spring of 2012, disquieting days for the UConn basketball program.
Players were leaving for the NBA, which was one thing. Others were transferring.
"I remember Niels asking me, 'Coach, we won the national championship last year, we just were in the NCAA Tournament ... what's wrong with them?' " Calhoun recalled.
"So that these three guys stayed, it's not much of a surprise to me. They believed that UConn was still UConn."
Shabazz Napier, Tyler Olander and Niels Giffey play their last game at Gampel on Wednesday against Rutgers. They will be honored on senior night with grad student Lasan Kromah, walk-on Tor Watts and grad assistant Dave Sevush.
The trio has won 95 games at UConn, and will be back in the NCAA Tournament because they stuck it out.
"We've talked a lot about it, especially after that disappointing loss [to Iowa State] in the NCAA Tournament," Giffey said. I just remember the whole atmosphere really being down, and it was the guys that stayed here that really became close. We realized that none of us were selfish, none of us put ourselves ahead of the group."
Olander, an E.O. Smith grad, came from down the street. Giffey, from Berlin, Germany, came from across the globe, and they were roommates as freshmen. One day a kid with glasses and a rat tail plopped down on their bed and introduced himself: Shabazz Napier from Boston. "And we just kind of went from there," Giffey said.
They were part of a seven-player freshman class that included Roscoe Smith, Michael Bradley, Enosch Wolf and Jeremy Lamb. Freshman year was the stuff of dreams, following Kemba Walker's lead all the way to the national championship. Sophomore year was when they had to show what they were all about. The Huskies were good, 20 wins and a tournament berth, but did not live up to the No. 4 ranking they took into the season.
"I think I grew the most my sophomore year when nothing went the right way," Napier said.
The Big East Conference was disintegrating. Smith, Bradley and Alex Oriakhi transferred. Lamb and Andre Drummond left for the NBA and Calhoun hadn't decided to return for a 27th season.
"I told Coach Calhoun that I was going to stay," Napier said, "and I was going to help him show them what we got if it was the last ride for him. Because there were a lot of rumors saying it was going to be his [last year]."
Olander, who had started the national championship game, thought about transferring, but only briefly. "I didn't see myself anywhere else," he said. "I wanted to finish it out here. I was comfortable here, I was happy here."
Calhoun retired a month later and Kevin Ollie took over. Alhough Napier was distraught at first, he still calls Calhoun "a father figure," he stayed to play for Ollie. The Huskies, depleted by transfers, went 20-10, exceeding expectations.
"Their loyalty, what they showed the program through adversity, the character, the leadership they showed when we were in a difficult time, it means a lot to me," Ollie said. "There was a lot of pain around here, but players in this program embraced the pain and then came success."
Napier is in the running for every major player-of-the-year award, has hit dramatic game-winning shots and leads the team in scoring, rebounding assists and steals
Giffey, after a summer playing with pros in Germany, has had a superb senior year, shooting 55.8 percent from the floor, hitting 40 of 80 three-point attempts.
Olander has had a different experience. He was arrested twice in six months for trespassing in Florida and for driving without a license in September. Suspended from the team, he earned his way back and, although he has become a bench player, has enthusiastically worked with the Huskies' young big men.
"I think Tyler would be a hell of a coach someday," Ollie said. "I'm a point guard so I observe everything. The way he's treating the other guys who are pretty much taking his minutes — I've been in that role before — and for him to embrace them and teach them the nuances of the game, that's been great."
Said Calhoun: "Perseverance is something every player should have, and Tyler has perseverance."
During his sophomore season, Napier lost his cool. After a loss to Marquette, he called out teammates for "not playing with heart," and feelings were hurt. His leadership style has evolved dramatically since.
"He's done a great job understanding leadership from the inside out," Ollie said. "He's gone through tough times as every leader does. All the different things he's learned in his four years here will help him immensely outside of basketball. It won't be long before he follows Khalid [El-Amin] and has his name up there in the rafters."
The Huskies are 23-6, 11-5 in the American Athletic Conference. Napier (sociology), Olander (political science) and Giffey (economic geography) will graduate on time, which will vastly improve the program's graduation rate and academic image. Kromah, a grad student, will earn his master's in educational psychology this summer.
"The degree is super important," Napier said. "I know I'm not going to be able to play basketball all my life. That's one thing my mother always tells me, you're probably only going to play basketball till you're 40 and that's it. You've got to have something to fall back on. My mother always told me Plan A was to get my degree, Plan B was to play basketball. I stuck with that and it's going to be a special moment when I walk across the stage at Gampel and get my degree."
Olander: "Just looking back on the four years, the ups and downs, good and bad, it's just been so fun and enjoyable. So many life lessons from so many different people, it's been an unbelievable ride. The bond that we have will probably last a lifetime."
Giffey: "You just realize that it's about more than basketball. It's about your education, about the experiences you get here and just growing up as a man."
And the last word? Who else?
"Even though all three of us come from different states, different countries," Napier said, "we have something together that no one else can take apart, a brotherhood. We lived together, we hang out a lot. It's special to know we came in together and we're all leaving together. We came in with seven and we're leaving with three, and we're happy about our decision of staying, Tyler and Niels are always going to be my brothers. That's something you cherish at the end of the day."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun