ARLINGTON, Texas — Staggered by the departure of legendary coach Jim Calhoun and the revelation that academic woes would prevent his team from being eligible for the 2013 postseason, UConn guard Ryan Boatright wrestled with a tough decision two years ago.
He could turn pro and gamble his solid freshman season caught the attention of NBA scouts. He could transfer to another school without such an uncertain future. Or he could stick it out at UConn and hope that interim coach Kevin Ollie could stabilize the program in time to make an NCAA tournament push once the postseason ban was lifted.
"I was never going to leave to transfer. I was going to leave to try to turn pro," Boatright said. "But I'm built on loyalty. My mom really emphasized loyalty with me. That's why I stamped it on my chest. I was committed to the program and the university. I didn't want to abandon the people I'd committed to when times got hard."
That Boatright, Shabazz Napier, Deandre Daniels and a handful of other veterans each decided they had a responsibility to stay at UConn is the biggest reason the Huskies avoided a nosedive. They won 20 games last season despite not being eligible for the postseason and built on that success this year, earning a No. 7 seed in the NCAA tournament and toppling St. Joseph's, Villanova, Iowa State and Michigan State to earn a matchup with top-ranked Florida in the Final Four.
The loyalty of Boatright, Napier and Daniels is especially noteworthy considering not all of their teammates felt the same. Andre Drummond and Jeremy Lamb sacrificed their remaining eligibility and entered the NBA draft, a decision they likely would have made whether or not UConn was postseason ineligible. Power forward Alex Oriakhi earned his degree and took advantage of the chance to play right away at Missouri as a one-year transfer, while fellow big men Roscoe Smith and Michael Bradley transferred to UNLV and to Samford, respectively.
Though Daniels and senior big men Niels Giffey and Tyler Olander all said they decided pretty quickly not to transfer, Napier, like Boatright, weighed his options for a while. Ultimately, he didn't feel comfortable either transferring or turning pro on the heels of a disappointing sophomore season in which the Huskies underachieved as a team and he shot poorly from the field and struggled to fill the leadership void left by Kemba Walker.
"My sophomore year I didn't play up to my capabilities," Napier said last week. "I felt like I owed the university, as well as the coaches and my teammates a good year.
"My sophomore season, we had one of the best teams in the country. I think we started off No. 4 in the country. And we had great talent, Andre Drummond, Jeremy Lamb, Roscoe Smith, Alex Oriakhi. And I didn't know how to be a leader out there at that point. I was doing things that I wasn't definitely happy about. I isolated myself a lot when things were down. I didn't learn how to be a leader, even though I had one of the greatest leaders [Kemba Walker] in front of me my freshman year."
Once Ollie re-recruited Napier and Boatright, his biggest task before the 2012-13 season became motivating the team despite the lack of postseason prospects. Ollie did it by emphasizing the important of building toward this season when the Huskies would have their full roster back and a chance to play deep into March.
Even for a program accustomed to competing for conference titles and national championships, UConn's 20-10 record in the 2012-13 season was a significant feat because a depleted team consistently played hard and exceeded modest expectations. The Huskies have built on that this season, winning 30 games and reaffirming that the program won't slip under Ollie despite the uncertain period following Calhoun's retirement.
Napier has enjoyed an All-American-caliber senior season, averaging 18.1 points per game, elevating his play even further in the postseason and displaying all the leadership qualities he lacked his sophomore year.
Boatright's scoring numbers are actually lower as a junior than as a sophomore, but his point guard skills and decision making with the ball in his hands have improved.
Daniels has developed into a more versatile scorer, adding the ability to attack the rim and finish at the basket to a repertoire that already included an accurate spot-up jump shot.
"We're truly grateful to the guys who stayed and so so happy to see them reap the reward of their commitment," UConn associate head coach Glen Miller said. "Our coaches and players are very close. I think everyone loves and cares for each other sincerely. They really loved the university, not just playing for our basketball team but the university as a whole. They saw the light at the end of the tunnel, so they decided to stay."
Last fall, as he was preparing for his junior season, Boatright got the word "loyalty" tattooed on his chest. That serves as a reminder of the importance of loyalty, as does UConn's success after he, Napier and their teammates decided to stay put rather than turn pro or transfer.
"My mom always told me, 'If you stay loyal, good things will happen,'" Boatright said. "We stayed loyal to the university and to each other, and we're reaping the benefits right now."
Check out more NCAA tournament coverage on Yahoo Sports:
- - - - - - -