Syracuse win a statement for the present and future of UConn’s basketball program

If there’s one thing I can say definitively as a sports fan, it’s that maaaaaan have I been to a lot of Syracuse-UConn basketball games in my life. I mean, like a lot of them. I’ve seen them play at UConn. I’ve seen them play at the Carrier Dome. I’ve seen them play multiple times under the bright lights of the Big East Tournament. I’ve seen them play good games and bad games, blowouts and buzzer beaters, into one overtime, and once upon a time, even six (yes, I was there that night back in 2009. I’m still catching up on sleep to this day).

In life, I can’t claim I know much. But when it comes to Syracuse, UConn and hoops, I’ve seen just about everything there is to see.

And now, none of us ever get to see any of it again.

That’s right, you don’t need me or ESPN or anyone else to tell you that Syracuse-UConn is a thing of the past, a rivalry that’s not quite extinct, but barring the random NCAA Tournament pairing or early season out of conference game at Madison Square Garden (because other than the Carrier Dome, where else do the Orange play out of conference?) is definitely high on the endangered species list. Like Kansas-Missouri, West Virginia-Pitt and Texas and Texas A&M, UConn-Syracuse is now a relic of the past, thanks to money driven, football-infused conference realignment. That’s not good or bad, happy or sad. That’s just the reality we live, in 2013.

Of course the difference between A&M, Missouri, West Virginia and others, is that there is no yellow brick road to realignment riches for UConn. Syracuse, Pitt and Louisville have the relative comfort of the ACC to fall into, but for UConn- a program which has unquestionably had more basketball success than any of them over the past two decades- there is no clear path from the present to the future. No one knows what’s next for UConn, as this program remains perpetually stuck on the college realignment hamster wheel. Every time somebody else steps off, the Huskies still get caught running in circles.

So with that as a background, you now know why Wednesday’s Syracuse-UConn game was so important to Huskies fans, and quite possibly the most important game (at least for UConn) I can ever remember them playing. This wasn’t just about the past, but the future as well. It was the opportunity for UConn to stick it to Syracuse one final time, and another opportunity to get under the skin and into the head of Jim Boeheim too. It was also one final chance to say to the ACC, “Guys, you can have Syracuse. We’ll stick to winning National Championships if that’s ok with you, though.”

Of course this was also one last chance- or at least the biggest one, anyway- for UConn to stick it to the NCAA too, an organization which put UConn on probation a few years back and banned them from the 2013 NCAA Tournament as well. Understand, I’ve already written extensively on how unjust and ignorant those sanctions were, so I won’t get into it here. Just know that for what UConn’s penalties were, relative to what they did (and have already been punished for), it’s just laughable.

But like with Syracuse, UConn is getting the last laugh with the NCAA Thursday morning as well. Sure the NCAA can take away scholarships and can keep the Huskies out of their precious tournament. Guess what though? No NCAA sanction can keep UConn from being relevant. The players on this team won’t allow it. Neither will their new, rock star head coach.

That’s right, Wednesday night may have been a national coming out party to let the college basketball world know this program isn’t dead, but for those of us who’ve been watching all year we already knew that who everyone else is just learning: No one plays harder than these Huskies. No, UConn isn’t the biggest or the strongest team in the country, but whatever they lack in size or strength they make up for in heart and grit. There may be no Emeka Okafor in the paint or Rudy Gay on the wing or Josh Boone coming off the bench. But while they may not be a vintage UConn team, man, do they play with a vintage UConn toughness.

And above all, that’s what so damn likeable about this team: For those of us who grew up watching UConn, who remember them before the championship banners and regular Final Four trips, what you saw Wednesday was who UConn was. They weren’t a superstar-driven super-power, but a team that was just going to spend 40 minutes “out-toughing” you. It started with their maniacal head coach, and trickled down to players like Kevin Ollie, Ricky Moore and Kevin Freeman (all of whom, not ironically are currently on the Huskies staff). Back in the day, UConn wasn’t always bigger than you, but they were going to come right at you with everything they had, and they weren’t going to stop until the whistle sent the game final. More often than not, when the final whistle blew, it was UConn who was on top.

And while that might not be who UConn was the last few years, that’s exactly who they are in 2013. It’s also exactly who they were against Syracuse.  

Reflecting back on that game, well, I’ve got to be real with you: I’m still not totally sure how UConn won on Wednesday night. That’s not me being dramatic or overly hyperbolic, because, I mean, did you see those two teams? Syracuse was the bigger and better squad, the group that came into the Hartford Civic Center (I’ll never, ever call it “The XL” by the way) with the No. 6 ranking in the country, 20-3 record and a roster that could’ve been mistaken for a smallish NBA team. On the other side of the court it was UConn who was 16-6 and played a grand total of one player on Wednesday night who taller than 6’8. That player just so happened to be a true freshman who is so raw that he wasn’t offered a scholarship until the spring of his senior year of high school, something unheard of in the modern era. That’s the reality of UConn is in 2013 and the inherent disadvantages they face every time they take the court.

That’s also why, again, I’m not totally sure how UConn won that game. Every logistical and strategical advantage went to the Orange, and to add insult to Huskies injury they had a first-year coach going against a guy with over 900 wins and 37 seasons under his belt. Of course (and forgive me for being full of clichés this morning) if there’s one thing you can’t measure, its heart, which is a category UConn may very well lead the country in.

That’s because once the game tipped off, rankings and measureables didn’t matter, at least not relative to the final score. What mattered was that UConn just wanted it more than Syracuse did. They got to every loose ball. They continually hit big shots while Syracuse didn’t. Their guards somehow came down with rebounds, going over, around and through the Orange’s much bigger front-line. UConn won because they had the tougher players; Shabazz Napier is damn tough. So is Ryan Boatright. Omar Calhoun and Niels Giffey too. I don’t know if they’re tougher than Syracuse every night, but they were on Wednesday night.

At the same time, you know who is tougher than any one of those guys? UConn’s new head coach Kevin Ollie. I’m not saying this guy could run for governor of the state of Connecticut and win right now… but I’m not, not saying that either. If you know what I mean.

Without taking this column into a totally different direction (as if I haven’t 100 times already), I cannot express to you how shocked, surprised and overwhelmed Huskies’ fans are with Ollie in his first year as head coach. Understand that about as recently as four months ago there was real trepidation with Ollie; not only if he was the right guy for the job, but if there was potential he could single-handedly submarine the entire program. That’s not Ollie’s fault, and honestly, it’s not the fault of any fan for feeling that way either. After all, he was a 40-year-old with two year’s coaching experience, who was taking over one of the premiere programs in the country. I should also probably specify that when I say “two years coaching experience” I’m not talking about two years as a head coach, I’m talking two years on the sideline as an assistant. Meaning that giving UConn the head coaching job would be a lot like a five-star restaurant hiring some guy to run their kitchen after one solidly run backyard barbeque.

Only that’s exactly what UConn did. And I speak for a lot of Huskies fans when I was say I was damn nervous about what the Kevin Ollie era would bring.

The key word of course is “was,” since for whatever Ollie lacked in big-time coaching experience, he has made for… well, just about everywhere else. Ollie might not be a Hall of Famer with nearly 900 wins on his resume, but with all due respect to Jim Calhoun, even a Hall of Famer with 900 wins on his resume wouldn’t be doing more with this team than Ollie is.

Again, I cannot emphasize this enough: This dude has been impressive on all fronts. Every… single…one. Sure I figured he’d be able to motivate these kids, if only because he’s young, dynamic, and- as I mentioned- these kids need no motivating. If they’re not the toughest group in the country, they’re pretty darn close.

At the same time, I’d be lying if I said Ollie would be this good, as a pure, X’s and O’s coach. I mean sure he spent the last two years around Calhoun and sure he was coached by Larry Brown, Scotty Brooks and others in the NBA. But at the same time, that doesn’t really mean all that much in the grand scheme of things. There’s no transitive property in basketball, and no guarantee that just because he played in the NBA for 15 years that he absorbed any real, tangible, useful coaching knowledge. There’s a possibility, yes. But no guarantee.

Only with Ollie, that’s exactly what happened. If there’s one big takeaway from his first four months on the job, it’s that the dude can coach. After all, you don’t beat Tom Izzo and Jim Boeheim in the same season if you don’t know what you’re doing, which also leads to this question: If UConn were eligible for the NCAA Tournament, could you imagine what kind of seed they’d be looking at right now? How many clubs in the country have a more impressive trio of wins this season than Michigan State, Syracuse and at Notre Dame? Not many. Except those three teams are who UConn and their first-year head coach have beaten in 2013.

Of course there is no NCAA Tournament to play for in 2013, and really, I thought Ollie had the quote of the year when he described the status of his team right now. As Jimmy Dykes said in the broadcast on Wednesday night, Ollie told him:

“We have nothing to play for. Except for each other.”

Holy crap.

I mean, woah.

That quote is so damn beautiful, I want to wrap it up with a nice bow and give it to a girl for Valentine’s Day or something.

It also perfectly describes this 2013 UConn team. No, they don’t have an NCAA Tournament to play for. Or a Big East title. Not to mention that pretty much every player on this roster could’ve transferred from and gone to play somewhere else, and no one would’ve blamed them. But they stuck around. For each other.

And really, I don’t think anything better symbolized that than this team’s bond than what happened immediately following the game? You did see that, right? How once the game went final and ESPN corralled Ollie for an interview, he was joined by his players? Not one of them… but by the entire team?

For those of us watching, it wasn’t a fraudulent, “look at me” moment, but instead a special one, between a team and coach which genuinely loves and cares about each other.

This team might not have a postseason to play for. But they have each other.

And right now, that’s all they need.

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About Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres works for Fox Sports, and was previously a best-selling author of the book 'The Unlikeliest Champion.' He currently uses Aaron Torres Sports to occasionally weigh-in on the biggest stories from around sports. He has previously done work for such outlets as Sports Illustrated, SB Nation and Slam Magazine.