Last March, a talented but apathetic UConn team secured an NCAA tournament bid even though it never seemed to care much about going. This March, a scrappy, overachieving UConn team that has proven it belongs will watch the NCAA tournament from home.
Despite being ineligible for postseason play as a result of substandard Academic Progress Rate scores from 2007 to 2011, this season's Huskies have performed with the urgency and tenacity last year's team lacked. They've overcome an offseason coaching change and a slew of frontcourt defections to win 17 games so far this season, two more victories than the team led by first-round draft picks Andre Drummond and Jeremy Lamb had this time a year ago.
The most recent victory might have been the most impressive UConn has notched. Behind 17 points from sophomore Ryan Boatright and 15 from freshman Omar Calhoun, the Huskies bid farewell to ACC-bound rival Syracuse on Wednesday night in Hartford with a 66-58 upset victory.
It was Calhoun whose trio of 3-pointers sparked a game-changing 13-4 second-half spurt that gave UConn a nine-point lead with six minutes to go. Syracuse simply didn't shoot well enough to get back into the game, sinking only 35.4 percent of its field goals and 4 of 23 from behind the arc, including 0 of 7 from Brandon Triche alone.
UConn improved to 7-4 in Big East play, tied for sixth place yet only one game behind co-leaders Syracuse, Georgetown and Marquette. The Huskies have a chance to improve on that too thanks to a favorable finishing schedule that includes four out of seven at home and six out of seven against teams behind them in the conference race.
That UConn has competed so hard despite having so little to gain is a testament to Kevin Ollie. The first-year coach received a well-deserved midseason contract extension because he has managed to get the Huskies to buy into the idea of playing for each other.
Their guards are pesky on defense, steady on offense and explosive in transition. Their big men, while sometimes overmatched in the post or on the glass, have typically managed to hold their own, even against more talented competition. As a result, UConn has shown the ability to compete with anyone, from upsetting Michigan State in Germany, to pushing NC State and Marquette to the final minute, to topping Syracuse on Wednesday night.
UConn has tried several times to appeal to the NCAA to lift its postseason ban, arguing that the current Huskies had nothing to do with the APR penalties and the players' grades are satisfactory now.
That's all true, and it's far from an ideal system, but it's also understandable the NCAA didn't budge. The only way the NCAA can punish a program that doesn't perform in the classroom is to do it with retroactive sanctions and give the current players the option to transfer without penalty.
While Roscoe Lamb, Alex Oriakhi and other UConn players opted to take advantage of the chance to transfer, the remaining Huskies chose to stay -- and it's a shame they can't be rewarded for that. They've played with such heart and such fire that they deserve a better fate than watching the NCAA tournament from home.
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