UConn men: Not soon forgotten

UConn coach Kevin Ollie has the Huskies at 15-5, 5-3 in conference heading into a Big East game on Wednesday at St. John's at MSG. /Associated Press

UConn coach Kevin Ollie has the Huskies at 15-5, 5-3 in conference heading into a Big East game on Wednesday at St. John’s at MSG. /Associated Press

John F. Silver

The record is a surprise for the UConn men’s team.

15-5 on the season, 5-3 in the Big East and a national profile that is almost an assuredly NCAA tournament worthy.

That’s not bad for a first year coach in Kevin Ollie and considering the mitigating factors with the Huskies season, it’s actually quite remarkable.

UConn was left for dead in September when Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun retired and with it the keys handed over to an untested former player in the then 39-year old Ollie. The Huskies were less than 18 months from a national championship, but with postseason bans in place, conference realignment rocking athletics with none of it to UConn’s benefit and a roster of players that didn’t fit this was going to be a year that couldn’t quickly enough.

Something funny happened on the way to irrelevancy for UConn this year.

The Huskies are actually good.

The Huskies have played a better brand of basketball, more cohesive and with much more joy and passion than their talented predecessor last season. The Huskies are 5-3 in the Big East, only two games out of first place (Syracuse is 7-2) and with 10 games left — starting with a date at St. John’s at MSG on Wednesday — are heading into the home stretch with plenty to play for.

“This team is good,” guard Shabazz Napier said after a 24-point game against South Florida. “On the stat sheet and if you looked at us, we wouldn’t seem to be that well. But we work so hard together.  We challenge each other every single day. We make sure that day, we go out there and never take it for granted. It comes from Coach Ollie. He make us understand we can’t get back this day.”

Who saw that?

” I doubt we have another team banned from postseason and banned from conference (tournament) play,” Ollie said Sunday. “It’s remarkable. This team is never going to be forgotten by the fans or by me, especially for what they endured.”

The Huskies have done this outside of the spotlight as the NCAA ban has put UConn men’s basketball on ignore in the college basketball machine. That’s how leading scorer Shabazz Napier (17.2 ppg, 44 percent shooting, 40 percent from 3) was left off such lists as the Bob Cousy Award for top point guard and how he is garnering little attention among Big East coaches either despite becoming as clutch a player late as there is in the country. The Huskies also have talented running mate Ryan Boatright (16.2 ppg) as well as Deandre Daniels (10.1 ppg) starting to live up to his vast potential. Add in a young and improving Omar Calhoun (10.8 ppg) and the Huskies have talent and building blocks in place.

The Huskies, at 15-5, are also on the ignored list as a team with an RPI of 22, a strength of schedule of 17 and have a long history success, yet didn’t receive a single vote in the USA Today’s coaches Top 25 team this week.

The minds were made up long ago that this was going to be a down year for UConn, but the conventional wisdom hasn’t held.

Winning ugly is something the Huskies have patented with a win over Providence in overtime despite being out rebounded by 31 and a win over South Florida despite shooting 29 percent from the floor.

Napier is the catalyst and he isn’t concerned about what others think of the Huskies.

“I don’t think too much of us cares much about it,” Napeir said of the snubs. “We just wanna play. We are just kids trying to play and get the fans something to be excited about.”

Excitement is a word few expected to be mentioned in conjunction with UConn this year. This year’s Huskies, for all their flaws and shortcomings, has already defied the odds.