STORRS – The Huskies already know the ending. It's March 9, at Gampel Pavilion against Providence at noon.
When that game is over, barring an unforeseen change of heart by Big East Conference presidents, the balls will be put away.
This is not the way it is supposed to be in sports. No spoiler alerts. Teams are meant and players are wired to play their first game without knowing when or where their last will be, ever nurturing the hope of being the last team standing and holding a trophy. But the Huskies, as a result of subpar Academics Progress Rating scores by their predecessors, are ineligible to play in the 2013 postseason.
"It is what it is, basically," Ryan Boatright said with a sigh at Big East media day, as the question was posed repeatedly.
The Big East presidents voted to follow the NCAA ruling, barring the Huskies from the Madison Square Garden main event, though UConn could make one more appeal in a meeting in Chicago this month. That is not expected to gain any traction.
So how will this UConn team, representing a program that has appeared in one postseason tournament or another — the Big East, the ECAC, NCAA or NIT — every year since 1978, stay motivated?
"In the beginning of the season, we're not going to be thinking about it, because we'll have a lot of games left," Shabazz Napier said, "but when we get to where there are five games left … three games left …"
The Huskies will have to find motivation from within.
"I hope I never go through that," Providence coach Ed Cooley said, "but I imagine it becomes an us-against-the-world mentality. You're playing for pride. You're playing for the brand. You're playing for each other."
If this is consolation, the Huskies are not alone. This fall, bowl perennials Ohio State, Penn State and Southern California are playing through a season of ineligibility.
"We just have a huge chip on our shoulder," USC safety T.J. McDonald told the Seattle Times last summer. "I know that's something that's a huge cliché, but we've heard that stuff — 'How are you going to motivate these guys; they can't go to a bowl anymore?' As much as we say it, people might not believe it, but that's over with, in the past."
At Ohio State, where Urban Meyer is in his first season, the Buckeyes are paying more attention to the AP writers' poll than Meyer ever did at his prior coaching stops. It's all they have.
"Oh, yeah. We're not shy," Meyer told reporters in October. "We have a state of the union every week with the players, and they know. We're not hiding it. That's your top-10 football team, and the stakes are real high."
In 1992-93, Syracuse was ineligible for the NCAA Tournament, but was allowed to play in the Big East event. The Orange lost their first three league games, one to UConn, but then rallied and finished 20-9 before losing to Seton Hall at the Garden.
"Yeah, we went through that," coach Jim Boeheim recalled. "You just tell the players, 'This is it. This is your tournament, and you're in it.' We got off to a rough start, but we finished strong and ended up having one of the better regular seasons we've had."
If the Huskies begin the season with a win over Michigan State, and/or knock off other top nonconference opponents like N.C. State and Washington, they could be playing for a ranking once the Big East schedule starts at Marquette on Jan. 1. "They can keep us out of the tournament, but they can't keep us from being one of the best teams," Tyler Olander said during the summer.
And if UConn, with its roster depleted by transfers and NBA defections, can win 20, a nice, round number, of their 29 games, as Syracuse did, it would have to be considered a very successful season.
The players on the 2012-13 team do have a legacy to live up to, but also one to establish. Ollie, who succeeded retiring Jim Calhoun on Sept. 13, is signed only through April 4, something about which players such as Napier have expressed some unhappiness. So the current Huskies are in a very real sense playing for their coach and his future. Athletic director Warde Manuel will be watching to see how the team responds as he is making his evaluation.
"The kids we have are buying in," Ollie said. "We want them to understand that it's special to put on that jersey; they are playing for a great university. This team still has the UConn standard to live up to."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun