UConn Huskies head coach Kevin Ollie along with Shabazz Napier, Niels Giffey, Ryan Boatright, DeAndre Daniels and Phillip Nolan met with the media on Sunday in anticipation of Monday night’s NCAA Championship Game against the Kentucky Wildcats at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX.
Here’s what they had to say:
THE MODERATOR: We’ll take questions for Coach Ollie and for the student‑athletes, Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright, Niels Giffey, DeAndre Daniels, and Phillip Nolan.
Q. Shabazz, you’ve obviously had a lot of big shots, game‑winning shots over your career. Wanted to know how impressed you’ve been with what Aaron Harrison has been able to do the last three games with his game winning 3‑pointers and that kind of stuff?
SHABAZZ NAPIER: Yeah, man, he’s a clutch player, as you can tell in three games, wanting to take that shot. Like I always said, the biggest thing about that is if you’re willing to take it. A lot of guys shy away from the moment, and he’s not one of those guys.
Hopefully it doesn’t come down to his shot, and if it does, we’re going to make sure that we move him away from that left side where he’s been knocking down that shot consistently.
So he’s got that clutch gene that everyone’s been talking about. He’s not scared to miss the shot, because that’s the chance you take. You take that shot, there’s a chance you miss it. But he’s going to be the guy that’s wanting to be the hero and that’s just a lot of respect.
Q. Coach, defensively in terms of defending Kentucky, what are you looking to key in on?
COACH OLLIE: First of all, we want to get back in transition. That’s our No. 1 key every game, especially them. They got a lot of great athletes. They use their quickness, their speed, their jumping ability, to get inside the paint. So we want to locate, want to get back, want to keep them in front of us, and then play solid defense. We want to limit the penetration and make them shoot over the top.
Q. Kevin, Louisville defeated your team three times by a total of 55 points. How much is that matchups and how much is your being here improvement?
COACH OLLIE: Things happen throughout the season. They got great players, Coach Pitino is a great coach, but Florida beat Kentucky three times. So, I mean, it’s all about going out there, playing each and every day, each and every game. It’s something different. You got to be able to step up to the challenge.
I tell these guys all the time, You don’t play the game, let the game play you. I thought we did that last night when they came out, and 16‑4, we didn’t get down. We kept allowing our defense to take over and our unselfishness to take over and our togetherness to take over.
So I thought we built last night, but I thought we built on a lot of up‑and‑downs throughout the season. That’s what great teams do. They take the challenge and they get better from it.
So we want to go out there and we want to win one more game. That’s our only goal.
Q. For DeAndre and Phillip, what are your guys’ impressions of Julius Randle and what do you think the key to containing him is?
PHILLIP NOLAN: He’s a pretty strong guy. Basically everything coach said, just try to keep him off the glass.
DeANDRE DANIELS: We’re not focused on one player, we’re focused on Kentucky as a whole. But just when their bigs get it in, just everybody communicate and helping one another and just always have other bigs back, no matter what happens, and box them out and rebound.
Q. Shabazz and Ryan, I think this Kentucky team has like seven McDonald’s All‑American and seven future pros. When you hear stuff like that, what goes through your mind and does that give you any kind of added edge or motivation in this game?
RYAN BOATRIGHT: Yeah, they’re All‑Americans and they’re supposed to be future pros. We don’t really look into that. It’s another game. We’re going to go out there and we’re going to execute our defensive schemes and play together and play UConn basketball. We’re not taking it as an extra challenge or nothing like that. They got to lace their shoes up just like we got to.
SHABAZZ NAPIER: Yeah, like Ryan said, we all play the game of basketball to compete against the best. This is one of them games. At the end of the day, they’re going to throw the ball up in the air. They don’t do nothing different. We put on our jerseys the same way. They worked hard to get to this point, and we did, too. We’re going to try to do our best to try to get this W.
Q. Kevin, what have you seen from DeAndre in the tournament? He went from an up‑and‑down season to being one of the best players in the country in this tournament. Two double doubles. Obviously yesterday was phenomenal. Is there anything you noticed different about him?
COACH OLLIE: No, we just want DeAndre to play. We always talk about DeAndre with touches. It’s not about points, it’s touches. It’s activity. It’s effort. We consider touches offensive rebound, defensive rebound, 50/50 ball, blocks. When he’s active, he scores.
If you look back through all the stats and our season, if he averaged eight rebounds, he averaged 19 points. So that tells you when he’s active and he’s paying attention to details and he’s going after the ball‑ we call it collective ball hunters‑ when he’s a ball hunter, he scores, because he’s that talented.
None of our players got roofs on them. There’s no limits on our players. We’re just going to go play hard and we’re going to play together. It’s no limits in our locker room. There’s no limits in our student‑athletes. They don’t have no limits. I would be doing them a disservice if I put limits on them.
Q. For all five of the players, it’s a short‑answer question. Beginning with the big guys, going down the line, in one sentence, why do you believe in your heart that Connecticut will win the championship?
PHILLIP NOLAN: We work hard. I just feel like all the trials and tribulations that we have been through throughout last season and this season just has prepared us for this moment.
DeANDRE DANIELS: I’m just going to say heart.
NIELS GIFFEY: That’s it? (Laughter.)
All right. I think we put so much work into it and it didn’t start this season, I think it started last season. Just this whole collective group has been through so many down periods that I think we really worked hard for this.
RYAN BOATRIGHT: Yeah, they said everything. Just wrapped that all in one. We been so much together last year and this year. We worked extremely hard. The UConn preseason is probably the worst preseason ever.
We got a lot of heart and a lot of will and coach always told us that this was a special team. He has been saying it all year, been saying it all last year, it’s a special team and we really believe that.
SHABAZZ NAPIER: And like they said, I just got all the confidence in my guys and we believe in everything we do.
Q. Shabazz, coach called you basically an unpaid coach at one point. Just talking about how much of a leader you are on the court. I was wondering if you could talk about your growth as a player under him and the kind of relationship you guys have had.
SHABAZZ NAPIER: Yeah, I came in with coach, he was the assistant coach, he was the guy that I was always beside and we worked out a lot. He did a lot of things for me. Coach Calhoun was the guy that yelled at you,
Coach Ollie was the guy that patted you on the back and kept you moving forward. The four years we have been together it’s been tremendous.
He’s been where we all want to be, a point guard in the NBA. He’s been through a lot. A guy like that who never pointed fingers at anybody but himself through all his trials and tribulations and everything he’s been through. You can learn from that.
We all believe. We all believed in each other, and no matter what’s going on, whether I’m laughing and joking with him or when I was a sophomore and I was crying in his arms because I was upset the way I was playing, he was always there for me. I never had a father in my life, and like I always said, I feel like he was always a father figure to me. That’s what I wanted.
He believed everything I did was with a lot of passion. It may not be the right thing at the right time, but he understood that I gave everything I got. When you have somebody like that in your corner, you should always cherish that and me and him has just been growing up since.
Q. For the seniors, can you tell me some of the similarities and differences between this season and the last championship season?
SHABAZZ NAPIER: We had Kemba Walker, the biggest difference. That team was definitely a unique team. This is a totally different team. We got a different coach, different players, different managers going down the line.
So, I mean, it just is a totally different team. We always said that we want to do what that team did, but at the end of the day, we want to go on our own path. So far so good. We just got to get one more 40‑minute game.
NIELS GIFFEY: I think that one of the similarities you can see is we have a great back court. Otherwise, I would say this is a very different team. We got more seniors, more juniors on this team than we had our freshman year. So I think we have our own identity in that way.
Q. If you could please talk about what those differences are, rather than just different players.
SHABAZZ NAPIER: That’s the biggest difference is the players. I think the heart’s the same. Everything’s the same, just the players. I don’t know how to go in depth with that. I think that just kind of sums it up.
Q. For coach and also for the players, what did you do last night? What time did you go to bed? What did you do? What is the most interesting text, tweet, e‑mail, phone call, that you received?
COACH OLLIE: I didn’t go to sleep too much. I had to stay up and watch Kentucky and do scouting reports and do those different things. I have an amazing coaching staff and we collaborate on a lot of things, it’s just not me. They do a great job preparing my student‑athletes for the war and the battle. So we were up all night preparing.
The only text I got was from Coach Brown just saying congratulations and have fun with it. I love him to death. I had an opportunity to talk to him this morning and he just gave me some sound advice, Have fun, don’t make it complicated.
DeANDRE DANIELS: Last night after the game, we went to the hotel, showered, ate some chicken tacos and couldn’t really sleep. Was tossing and turning all night just thinking about Monday. I just couldn’t wait to get on the court.
My text messages, I don’t remember. I have like 168 text messages, so I don’t know.
SHABAZZ NAPIER: I can’t go in depth like he did, but after the game, I just sat and ate with my mother. We were talking and hanging out.
Text messages I got was just saying, Keep working hard, way to keep your composure, and just keep believing.
Q. For coach and Shabazz and Ryan, simplistic question, but you’ve watched this game since you were young men, children. What does it mean to be in this game? The importance of this game, what does it mean to you to be in this spotlight? The second question for coach, if you’re faced with your team up by one point with 5.7 seconds to go, what are you going to do to stop Harrison?
COACH OLLIE: Hopefully we are in that position, we’re up and we have an opportunity to fall back on our defense. We have been doing that the whole year. It hasn’t been offense, it’s been defense. And that’s what we hang our hats on.
I’ve been telling you guys the whole time, Madison Square Garden or not Madison Square Garden, we played defense to win those games. And the same thing we brought here to Texas, we’re going to hang our hat on defense. In that situation, I look at the floor game, who is playing the best defense, the best five out there on the court that can play together and can get one more stop.
Hopefully it comes down to that and hopefully we get one more stop to win a game and to win a National Championship.
SHABAZZ NAPIER: What was the question?
Q. Did you watch this game growing up?
SHABAZZ NAPIER: Oh, man. I’m tired. We worked so hard to get to this point, and we just continue to believe in each other. It’s just so surreal to be back here.
Niels can tell you, when we were freshmen, the biggest thing guys said was, Take your chances, take your opportunity now, because you don’t know when you’re coming back.
For us to be back here now, it’s so surreal.
Q. Ryan, last night Coach Donovan gave you and Shabazz credit for keeping Wilbekin out of the lane and taking them out of their offense. The Harrison twins as good as they are, have been high turnover guys at times. What do you see from them in terms of ball handling that you feel you might be able to take advantage of?
RYAN BOATRIGHT: I ain’t going to reveal all my secrets, but I’m going to just try to do my best to turn them up and down the floor, to try to make them uncomfortable. Just try to get up in them and be a little physical with them.
But other than that, they’re good point guards. They’re big so their dribble is a little high, but I’m going to execute the defensive schemes that coach comes up with and just try to turn them up and down the floor.
Q. Kevin, Billy Donovan said last night that the big difference between last night’s game and the game from four months ago was that you have evolved into a great defensive team. When did that transition occur for you and when did you first get the sense that Ryan would be such affective defender as he is?
COACH OLLIE: I knew Ryan was going to be effective defender three years ago. It’s nothing new to me. We wanted him to be more consistent with it and I think he’s starting to do that, and just affect the game in so many different ways.
He alluded to it earlier. He had to mature as a young man and a basketball player. It’s not all about scoring. He can impact the game in so many ways and he’s starting to do that at the highest stage. He’s been doing it last year, he’s been doing it this year, and now everybody is seeing it.
But I’ve been seeing it every day in practice. The guy never misses a practice. I mean, for three years, he ain’t missed a practice. So y’all don’t see that. I see it. I know the type of heart he has, but I know the type of heart every one of these guys that are up here and the guys that’s in the locker room, our walk‑ons. All of us got heart and we play that way. It’s not a fluke that we are here. It’s core values and it’s principles, it’s not a fluke.
Q. A lot of players, like Shabazz just said, have referred to you as a father figure. I’m curious, what’s your philosophy as a mentor, and how has that evolved since you have become a head coach?
COACH OLLIE: I’m not here to motivate these guys or inspire these guys. They motivate themselves. I’m just here to add value. I just want to add value each and every day, and if they need something, at the end of the day, they know I got their back. Negative or positive, they can come in my office and I got their back.
Every day I come in with the same mindset that I want to get better at something. I want to help them be better men. In basketball is second to me. I want them better people once they leave Storrs campus. If I did that, forget about the wins and losses, National Championship, all that stuff, I think I done my job. If they leave that court, that Storrs campus a better person and a better man, able to make an imprint on their community.
Q. Coach, you talked a lot about your team’s improved defensive effort over the last month. What’s been the biggest difference in that area, and also how much has Terrence Samuel helped in terms of the perimeter defense down the stretch?
COACH OLLIE: Oh, Terrence has been huge. He’s really allowed me to put three point guards on the court at the same time, and it’s really allowing us to create havoc on the defensive end, picking up our pressure. But it’s really allowing us to space the floor and use our dribble drive sets more effectively. He’s just been doing an outstanding job.
Our defensive mentality, paying attention to details, we always say the genius is in the details. We’re paying attention to more details and these guys know if we lose, we go home. Whenever you got your backs against the wall like these student‑athletes have had their backs against the wall, they have fought. They are fighters, everyone of them. They fight to the end. They know if we don’t bring our A‑game, and we don’t have a B‑ or C‑game, we got an A‑game, then we will go home, and they don’t want to go home. They’re made for more.
They’re made for this championship game. We’re going to go out here and play 40 full and hopefully Connecticut is on that big billboard at the Jumbotron, whatever Jerry Jones calls it, saying that we’re National Champions and that’s all we want.
Q. After that 33‑point loss in the regular season finale, you said something, and I’m paraphrasing a little bit, but these guys maybe we can play two more games and go on spring break or something. How quickly did you know that that wouldn’t be the case, that they wanted to fight? Was it on the bus ride home, the next practice?
COACH OLLIE: No, I knew we were going to fight. I’m going to just tell you what I said. I said if we play like that and we’re going to go home and we’re going to enjoy spring break.
But I know we are fighters. When we got back in on that bus and we got back to practice, I can see the look in their eyes, and dark times is what promotes you. I’m glad that happened. I’m glad that happened, because we went back and I had to evaluate myself as a coach and I hope every player went to their dorms and looked themselves in the mirror and had to evaluate their effort. Down times like that just promote you.
So I’m glad it happened, because we all got together, we knew what we had to do, the challenge that was in front of us and we were going to face it. We got better from that.
Louisville beat us again in the tournament, but that’s all right. We got better from it. That’s what we want to keep doing. Every challenge, get better from it. Don’t get down on each other. Stay together. I think that even brought us together. So I’m glad Coach Pitino did that to us.
Q. Coach, having been born here and I understand you’re a cowboys fan‑‑
COACH OLLIE: Yes.
Q. ‑‑ and I knew you took the team here to come and see the stadium when you guys played SMU in January. Can you put in perspective what significance this setting has for you, if any.
COACH OLLIE: Oh, it’s a great significance. I was born in Oak Cliff right in Dallas. All my family is here. Able to get here, my mother’s able to get here. It’s just a great opportunity to look out in the crowd after we won and see all your family members here.
Of course I’m a big Dallas Cowboys fan and I did bring the team here and I wanted them to come and just see where we can actually be at. On this date. Tomorrow. Monday. I just wanted them to have a vision. They enjoyed the trip. They more enjoyed going into Dallas cheerleaders locker room more than anything, so… (laughter).
But they enjoyed the trip.
Q. Being there, and this is before your tournament run, your name was brought up without being asked about it by Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, etcetera. Kevin Durant’s quote was, It was a game changer for the franchise. I was just wondering for those folks in Oklahoma City what you think about something like that.
COACH OLLIE: I think the world of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Sam Presti, that whole organization, they changed my life. I know Kevin Durant says that, but, man, he changed my life.
They took on a 37‑year‑old point guard that can’t really shoot and gave me another life, another contract. But their organization is so great, they treat everybody first class. They treat the last player on the bench just like they treat KD. KD is a humble young man and everybody gets caught up in that quote, I get caught up in the quote. He said, At the end of the day, I want to be called a servant. And I want all these guys to understand that.
The best player on their team is saying, I want to be a servant, and if we can serve each other, we’ll be a better team. That’s what their organization is built on and that’s why they’re going to be a successful franchise going from years to years to years and showing that consistency, because that’s their motto.
Q. For you Shabazz, you talked about crying to Coach Ollie when you were a sophomore. What was going on with your game at that time that actually brought you to tears and how did he help you pull you out of it?
SHABAZZ NAPIER: Just the biggest thing is losing. I’m a competitor. I hate losing. I hate it a lot. I wasn’t being a leader like I thought I would be able to. It was tough that year. Learning from Donnell Beverly and Kemba Walker, I thought I was going to be able to be a good leader, but I wasn’t able to. When you’re losing and you start isolating yourself and you never have any good thoughts, sometimes it brings you to tears.
It was tough some days. I always had somebody that was going to be there to pick me up. Some days I didn’t want to get picked up, some days I just wanted to isolate myself, but Coach Ollie and all the coaches always took me up under their wings and just tried to up lift me, no matter what was going on. They continued to believe in me. They continued to have their patience and guided me to who I am now.
Q. In ’91, I think you might have been a freshman, but when the Fab Five came on to college basketball, did you look at that as something that would be long‑term, that you would have that many freshmen? Now Monday night obviously you’ll face the freshmen again in terms of how freshmen are viewed in college basketball. Can you go back to what you thought about the Fab Five, and now this many years later you’re going to play a team with that many freshmen. Did you think it would be that way the whole way through?
COACH OLLIE: No, it goes in ebb and flows. You have some freshmen that are going to play together and then you’re going to have some freshmen that’s not going to play together. Back in ’91 it was a great team. They all came together. They got to the championship game. Great talent. Coach Fisher was able to put that talent together and make them work for one goal.
I think that’s what John Calipari does. John does a great job of that. Wonderful coach. Everybody says he’s a great motivator, yeah, but he’s a great coach, too, to get all those guys to buy in and not give up on them.
You see the fruits of their labor right now. They’re playing their best basketball. And that’s what great teams do and that’s what great coaches do, they allow their teams to play the best basketball and grow up and mature. And he does a great job.
Different players have different reasons of going to school. Some players go together, some players don’t. Kentucky has been doing it. They have had great success. If they didn’t have great success, I don’t think it would be repeated, but they’re having great success. Coach Calipari does a great job of identifying who his recruits are and getting them ready for the NBA.
Q. Coach, going back to your years coming back here to work with your father’s landscaping service, I’m wondering if you still mow your own lawn, and if so are you a Toro or Troy‑Bilt man?
COACH OLLIE: No, I don’t mow my own lawn no more. Pops used to get me up about 4 o’clock in the morning and he didn’t pay me a lot. I come see some of these apartments I used to cut and I know he got me. He got me all my life.
But it really taught me how to work hard, getting up at 4 o’clock, trying to beat the heat. He still cuts today. He still has got his landscaping business. So I always see that determination and fight in him. He really established that work ethic in me with the combination of my mother, too, working hard, raising three kids on her own in South Central California.
quotes courtesy of asap sports
photo credit: richard messina – hartford courant