STORRS – The postgame ceremonies were over but the emotional ride had not reached its conclusion. Kevin Ollie took the microphone and let 10,000 of his closest friends in on a little secret.
"I'm planning to come back here in April and raise a banner," he said.
This would be bold for any coach, and Ollie is usually as much a one-possession, let alone one-game-at-a-time type as any coach. But even after the Huskies struggled to beat 19-loss Rutgers 69-63, even after being outrebounded for the fifth time in six games and even after a game in which the Huskies' offense was almost entirely reliant on perimeter shooting, 12-for-25 on three-point attempts, Ollie was prepared to declare UConn's championship cup at least half full.
"The only way you're going to have a blessing is if you believe and have faith," Ollie said. "I believe we're going to be back here. I'm going to say it. I'm not going to say 'we're going to lose.' I believe we are going to win the national championship, and that's the only way I believe. I believe we're going to win the next game at Louisville. I just got faith in my team."
The Huskies (24-6), after the postseason ineligibility of 2013, will be one of 68 teams going to the NCAA Tournament and they are one of only two that can say they beat the team currently ranked No. 1 in the nation, Florida on Dec. 2. They can make a statement if they avenge a January loss and finish the regular season with a victory at Louisville, the defending national champ, on Saturday.
"It was emotion," Shabazz Napier said. "He said what he had to say and I'm going to back him up. I'm not going to say he's wrong. No matter what team you are, you can be the worst team or the best team, you've got to feel that way."
And Ollie has three players who have done it before, improbable as it still all seems. The Huskies finished the 2010-11 regular season with losses to West Virginia and Notre Dame, their eighth and ninth losses, but then won five games in five days at the Big East tournament. Jim Calhoun revealed afterward that he predicted a national championship after Kemba Walker's game-winning shot in the Big East tournament, but did it privately to associate head coach George Blaney. Ollie was in his first season as an assistant on that staff.
Napier, Niels Giffey and Tyler Olander were freshmen on that team, and know it can be done — and what it took to do it.
"It's something we think we can do," Tyler Olander said. "We have the pieces of the puzzle, the experience. We can make a run like that and that's our goal. It's just taking a page from Coach Blaney's book, he'd always say, 'you don't play in tournaments to lose, you don't play for second place, you play to win.' We've got some guys who know what it takes, and we've got some guys who know what it feels like to get bumped out first round [in 2012]. You definitely don't want to feel like that."
Ollie's statement can only add a spring and a swagger to his players' step moving forward.
"He expects a lot of us," Giffey said. "That's the type of guy he is. He wants to set that standard for himself and for the team. He's not satisfied with where we are now, he wants to get back up there. That's why I think he's the only guy who can step into Coach Calhoun's footsteps."
Napier scored 26 points against Rutgers, making a career-high seven three-pointers. Giffey, who has been UConn's most consistent shooter all season, scored a career-high 16 points. Others are struggling. DeAndre Daniels was limited by foul trouble. Struggling Ryan Boatright was 2-for-7. The Huskies were outscored in the paint 20-14 and allowed the Scarlet Knights to shoot 43.4 percent.
Now the Huskies are entering win-or-go-home territory, the American Athletic Conference and NCAA tournaments, with no margin for error.
In addition to Florida, which has since won 22 in a row, the Huskies have a number of quality wins – two against Memphis, one against Cincinnati, one against Indiana and Maryland early on – and two frustrating losses to SMU. Throughout Ollie's two seasons, the Huskies are 44-16 and have shown considerable mettle in close and overtime games.
"I have confidence in my guys," Ollie said. "I have confidence we're going to win every game. If you don't believe it, you're never going to have anything. I came here as a coach, I believed in myself, I believed in my coaching staff. No matter what the situation was. We've got a chance, like every other team. Like 68 other teams, we've got a chance, so why not think it?"Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun