STORRS – Niels Giffey, about to bookend his UConn career with trips to the Final Four, considered one championship run as a freshman and the final step toward another as a senior.
When UConn arrived in Houston in 2011, Giffey was at the tail end of complicated debut season. He spent months trying to tighten his grip on American culture and the English language, and it was just as hard trying to understand Jim Calhoun and the demands on a player in the Huskies' program.
Giffey found a way – found different ways at different times, actually, which has been his formula – to contribute to the program's third national title. He followed leaders such as Kemba Walker, Donnell Beverly and Calhoun when he could make out the then-coach's rapid-fire vernacular.
"It's an amazing journey for all the seniors right now," Giffey said. Three years later he has a thick beard covering his face and a German accent barely tracing his near-perfect English. "We know what it takes to go all the way and we've been there. It's nice to see how we adapted to the [upperclassmen] our freshman year and have applied it to our team now."
The Huskies, in the Final Four for the fifth time and seeking a fourth title, arrived in Arlington, Texas this week in advance of Saturday's national semifinal against Florida at AT&T Stadium. The winner advances to face Kentucky or Wisconsin Monday in the championship game.
Giffey's role in the final few days of his UConn career? Many will assume it is to be the Huskies' designated shooter. After all, he has made 56 of 114 shots from beyond the arc this season, 49.1 percent. Giffey is averaging a career-high 8.3 points and he has made more three-pointers this season than he even attempted in any of his previous three, when his contributions were maybe less noticeable but probably just as important.
Giffey, for instance, had a then career-high six rebounds in the 2011 national championship game victory over Butler. Months earlier, when UConn first opened the nation's eyes at the Maui Invitational, he had two important offensive rebounds down the stretch as the unranked Huskies defeated No. 2 Michigan State. The next night, in a championship game victory over Kentucky, he scored 14 points.
In between then and now, Giffey, 6 feet 7, has played both forward positions. A city kid from Berlin, Germany, he has adapted to the Connecticut suburbs. He has started and come off the bench. He fell out of the top tier of the rotation for a while only to return. He's been assigned to defend the opponent's top scorer. And then he found rhythm and confidence in his shot to help push UConn back to the Final Four after three years of patience and versatility.
"That was my role my whole career and I just stepped it up, scoring-wise, this year," Giffey said. "I really found my shot over the summer. The coaches, throughout my first couple years, they always labeled me as the glue guy. And I kind of wanted to get out of that, but at the same time it was kind of a compliment."
Giffey initially planned on a professional career out of high school but a bout with mononucleosis before his senior season set back his development and led him to consider other options. Andre LaFleur, then a UConn assistant coach, was the primary recruiter on Giffey, who chose the Huskies over Michigan. He also considered Louisville and Gonzaga.
"He just worked tremendously hard, the right way, unselfish," said coach Kevin Ollie, who was in his first season as an assistant under Calhoun in 2010. "He was very coachable from the first day I met him. He didn't really know too much and he didn't know what to expect from Coach Calhoun. I remember him playing early in the season and then he went through a lull where he didn't play. But all I remember is him putting his head down and continuing to work. I knew Niels would be a great player here and I knew whatever happened to him wasn't going to deter him from his goal to be here four years, graduate, play good basketball and get into the rotation."
Giffey has averaged 33 minutes in the NCAA Tournament. He played 37 against Villanova, grabbing a career-high 11 rebounds. He even stayed on the court for 35 minutes against Michigan State in the East Regional final, when he went through a rare in-game shooting slump (2-for-10, 0-for-5 on three-pointers).
"He continues to understand there's a new role in every game," Shabazz Napier said. "We want him to shoot threes, but sometimes he's doing different things, playing defense, getting guys going. He's been one of the best shooters in the world, in college basketball. But, whatever it takes. Coach Ollie could tell him to jump off the building and he would jump off the building."
Giffey's mother, Christine, attended the Final Four in Houston and Giffey was in the process Tuesday of looking into whether a trip for family members to Arlington was manageable. His parents, including father Frank, have visited a few times over the years. Sometimes they stay in Mansfield with the family of teammate Tyler Olander, one of seven freshmen with Giffey in 2010.
"My mom calls him her third son," said Olander, Giffey's roommate all four years. "I call him my brother. I think we're a little closer than some of the other guys because we've been together since freshman year. … I think playing in Europe and then coming here has helped him. He always says how different the European game is, and the fact that he's become an American-style player, he can get up and down and attack the rim. He's a complete player."
So where will that lead? Giffey, an economics major, will pursue a professional playing career.
"I know the German national team has games over the summer," Giffey said. "I'm just going to see what options open up. But our team just had a great run and hopefully we have two more games coming up. After that, hopefully I get a chance to go to a [NBA] summer league or something. That is something I would love to do, just see how far I can go."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun