STORRS – Tyler Olander started the last national championship game in which UConn participated. He did it as a freshman in 2011.
Omar Calhoun, a highly rated recruit from New York, started the first 41 games of his career at UConn and averaged 10 points as a freshman in 2012-13.
Normally, credentials like that would make for a prominent role as the Huskies prepare to play in the Final Four this weekend, but very little about this team, or this season, qualifies as typical. Both Olander, a senior, and Calhoun, a sophomore, have been making only cameo appearances in the NCAA Tournament, as coach Kevin Ollie has stuck with a rotation that began clicking and winning.
"It hurts, I know it hurts," Shabazz Napier said. "But at the end of the day they understand what's more important."
As several of the coaches UConn has faced in the postseason have noted, it's an indication of how much better the Huskies are with the current lineup. And competition within makes teams better.
A year ago the Huskies, hurt by transfers, departures and injuries, finished 20-10 with a much thinner roster. This season freshmen Terrence Samuel, Amida Brimah and Kentan Facey, and transfer graduate student Lasan Kromah, have given coach Kevin Ollie more options.
And as the season has progressed, it became apparent Niels Giffey was a different player after a summer playing for the German national team in the European championships, and he deserved more minutes. He is now starting at the wing.
Kromah brought a defensive tenacity the Huskies needed in the middle of the season and he took over as a starter in late December, though he has played extensively off the bench since March 13. That was Calhoun's spot.
At center, Brimah and Nolan pushed for playing time. Olander, the starter last season, got one start in the middle of this season but has generally played only when the Huskies run into serious foul trouble.
Neither, however, has checked out — and their teammates have noticed. They go hard in practice, helping to keep the starters sharp. They also play cheerleader on the bench and Olander, as a senior, has played in 32 games, starting four. He has averaged 8 minutes and has embraced the chance to mentor the younger big men.
"They've handled it well," DeAndre Daniels said. "They're not complaining. Nobody on this team is complaining right now. No matter who is shining on that day, whoever it is everybody is happy for one another. What those guys are doing is bringing it every day in practice, with the plays, every day, they never take a day off even though they're not playing, they'll always be ready when their name is called."
Last spring Calhoun had surgery on both hips to relieve an impingement that was causing discomfort and limiting his quickness. After a long summer of rehab he vowed to show UConn fans "the real Omar" in an interview with The Courant. But he wasn't able to play summer games or work on his skills the way a freshman-going-on sophomore normally would.
"My hips aren't bothering me," Calhoun said late in the season. "But not being able to work on your game in the offseason makes it tough to do the things you need to do."
After starting the first 11 games Calhoun lost his starting spot to Kromah, and was then set back by a concussion and a sprained ankle. As playing time dwindled, his signature skill – perimeter shooting – got rusty. He has missed 20 of his last 21 shots, hitting his last field goal on Feb. 6. Many of his shots have seemingly gone halfway in and then rattle out. He did not get into the game against Michigan State and his teammates appear to be pulling hard for him.
"I'd love to see Omar just go out there and have a great game," Daniels said. "He's been going through a lot. No matter what's happened to Omar, he's been always fighting. Never gave up."
Said Napier: "When he comes back next year he's going to be Omar times two, I know that for a fact. Because he still does things in practice that I'm wowed by, and he still has that sweet shot. And Tyler, for him to do what he's doing as a senior, it shows you how far he's grown. He's been through a lot, a lot of trouble. But when you make bad decisions, you learn from it. You either learn the wrong way or you learn the right way, and I think he's continued to learn the right way and he keeps pushing everybody around him."
Olander had problems of a different sort in the offseason. He was arrested twice, for trespassing during spring break and driving without a license in September. Ollie suspended him, but had seen enough diligence in the classroom and in modifying his behavior to reinstate Olander in time for the season. He hit a critical three-pointer in the final minutes of the opener against Maryland.
As Phil Nolan, who starts at center, and Brimah have improved on the court, Olander has become more important off it.
"I've just embraced [my role] best as I can," Olander said. "You want to be playing, but that's really not what it's about. It's about these other guys, about winning, about this program, what it means to be a part of something that's great. It's not just me that has been unselfish — all these guys have given themselves up for this team. Anything we've had to do, anything Coach asks, no one is hesitant to do it. It's how we make each other better. That's the reason we've been able to go so far and gut it out in these tough games, we really care for one another, we want to keep it going and keeping playing with each other."
The way the season has gone, one can never predict who might play a more important part of what the Huskies do in the Final Four. Ollie likes to say he "coaches by feel" and can turn to anyone at any time. Calhoun could still hit a game-changing three, or Olander grab an important rebound.
"I don't think those guys are hanging their heads low," Napier said. "We love them, and without them I'm pretty sure we wouldn't be where we are now, because every person on his team is a key part."
The Huskies arrived in the Dallas area on Tuesday night, and practiced Wednesday afternoon at Southern Methodist University's practice facility.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun