UConn Huskies men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie, players Shabazz Napier and Niels Giffey met with the media on Thursday in anticipation of their matchup with the Iowa State Cyclones in the Sweet 16 on Friday night.
COACH KEVIN OLLIE: Great to be back to Madison Square and we’re excited.
THE MODERATOR: Take questions for Coach.
Q. Can you talk about your relationship with Fred Hoiberg and how your long career in the NBA helped shape your approach with these athletes?
COACH KEVIN OLLIE: First of all Fred is a great friend of mine. We met in high school. As a matter of fact we were on the same recruiting visit to Arizona. And both of us didn’t decide to go to Arizona, and he went to Iowa State and I went Connecticut and I think it worked out for both of us.
I had an opportunity to play with him at the Chicago Bulls and just one of the greatest teammates I ever been around. Personable, would do anything for his teammates and he retired a little earlier than I did, and then he became the general manager‑‑ assistant general manager at Minnesota. And I was at the end of my career, and he took a chance on a 37‑year‑old point guard. And he signed me for one year, and I thank him for that, also.
He’s just been a great friend of mine, and he’s doing a wonderful job at his program. And just with our NBA experience I think we coach the same. We try to manipulate the defense. We try to go to different matchups. I look at him, and when he took the job at Iowa State and just filled in those shoes and just took it to another level. He’s just a great person and he’s doing a great job with his student‑athletes. I’m a big fan of Fred’s.
Q. Talk more about your relationship with Fred. You guys obviously played together. You knew each other back since high school. Does that make it easier to coach against him, tougher?
COACH KEVIN OLLIE: It always makes it tougher. You don’t want Fred to lose, but I don’t want UCONN to lose either. So it’s always tough coaching against one of your great friends. But at the end of the day we are both competitors, we both love our university, and once we get in those lines, you pretty much don’t have any friends. And you want your university to come out on top.
But I wish him great success and I know he’s going to have his team prepared, and hopefully I’ll have my team prepared and it will be a great matchup.
Q. Talk about what it means not only to you and your players, but also to the school and the fans to get a chance to come down here, and play in New York when, let’s be honest, in March we’re not expecting that any more down here in New York.
COACH KEVIN OLLIE: Yeah, it’s great. I told the guys, this came full circle. I know we came down here and played in the 2K Classic and won that Classic. But to come down here this time and our guys not able to play in the last Big East Tournament that was here last year, it’s all full circle.
It’s all the dedication, the hard work that they did to get our school through them down times when everybody was saying the school and the program was not going to make it. Those kids dug their heels in and said, yeah, we are going to make it. And we’re going to be loyal to the program, and you reap the benefits when you do that.
I’ve been telling y’all that for two years. I’m not going to change. If it wasn’t Shabazz and it wasn’t for our seniors taking on that pressure of saying, okay, I’m not going to leave. I’m going to stay here. I know Coach is retiring. I know we’re going to a new conference, but “UCONN” is still on our chest, and we’re going to keep believing. That’s what made it. And I really appreciate them. I really appreciate my support staff, my coaches, my AD, my president believing in us that we were going to make it through, and those players did it.
Q. It might have been Jay Wright last week who said that Shabazz was one of the best head‑faking guards in the country. Is that something that he’s worked on with you or is that something that he’s sort of brought to this program and sort of just honed over time?
COACH KEVIN OLLIE: You mean ball‑faking or head‑faking like that (indicating)?
Q. Sort of both.
COACH KEVIN OLLIE: Yeah, I don’t know if he’s using that to get of the refs to call a foul or what. I don’t know what Jay was up to. I think he’s the best ball faker, but I don’t know about the head‑faking. I think he gets fouled when he does that.
He’s just a great player. He’s hard to guard, especially when he’s offensive‑minded and aggressive, because he’s a great facilitator. He leads our team in assists and he does whatever it takes for us to win. When I have the ball in his hands at the end of the game or at a crucial time, I couldn’t think of a better guard to do it, because he’s not scared of the moment and he’s not scared to fail, because failure leads to success. And he’s done a great job for us.
His leadership that you don’t see all the time, because his leadership in practice. Being on the bench in the Villanova game for 12 minutes in the first half, still cheering his teammates on was absolutely great.
I think all of our players feed off his energy and his leadership.
Q. The venue, the Sweet 16 would be special if it were in Timbuktu, but how is it distinct? How is it different that it’s right here?
COACH KEVIN OLLIE: It’s special. I can’t say it’s not. Just playing at Madison Square Garden, the greatest arena alive for basketball, the mecca of basketball, it’s just a great place to play. And then our fans can come, too. It’s just a train ride away from Connecticut, and it’s just a great place. I know there’s going to be a lot of people here cheering for us.
But at the end of the day it’s a basketball game. So I don’t care if we’re in Memphis playing in our conference tournament, and Memphis got the crowd there, it’s a basketball game and we got to go out there and win our individual battles, and then also play collectively as a group, and understand that we’re playing a great, great team in Iowa State.
And I told the guys, this is expensive. We paid a lot to get here. But as we go farther and farther, the stakes rise.
And it’s not all physical; it’s mental. And we got to have the mental aspect to go out there and play our brand of basketball, don’t get caught up in the crowd, don’t get caught up in what Iowa State is doing; stay in your lane and play your type of basketball. That’s running, that’s defending, and that’s rebounding. Hopefully we can do those three aspects on Friday night.
Q. What kind of problems does Iowa State present you with so many different guys who can score?
COACH KEVIN OLLIE: I don’t know how long you want me to stay here, I can go through the list. First is DeAndre Kane. He’s just a great player. He puts so much pressure on you. We have to keep him in front. He’s also a 6’4″ point guard that Fred puts on the post and posts up a lot. So we’re going to have to really, really load against him and have him see a lot of jerseys that say “Connecticut”. It’s going to have to be ten eyes on him at all times. And I’m not saying Shabazz is guarding him. Yes, Shabazz is going to guard him. Niels is going to guard him. Our whole team is going to try to guard him. Hopefully we can stop him.
Then I know they’re missing George Niang, but you got the Big‑12 Player of the Year in Ejim. And he’s a load, a pick‑and‑pop guy, just like DeAndre and Niels, where he can go out in the post, but he’s also can pick out‑‑ he can also pick‑and‑pop on pick‑and‑rolls.
And all their guys seem like they can shoot. I don’t know if Fred is back there teaching them how to shoot, but they all shoot like Fred. And when Fred took a shot, I always thought it went in.
So all those guys shoot. They always catch shot ready and ready to make an impact on the game. So we’re going to have to really play. The first key for us is to get back in transition. First 15 seconds, they score a lot in the first 15 seconds, and if we can guard then, I think it can really help establish our defense in the half court. But we got to get back in transition. We’ve got to load, we got to get to the paint, and then we got to run their shooters off the 3‑point line.
Q. I know you are focused on this but as a former college athlete and college coach now, do you have any reaction to the Northwestern‑‑
COACH KEVIN OLLIE: No, I don’t really have a lot of reaction to it. I’m focused on my team, and I know the NCAA is doing a great job. I know our student‑athletes are doing a great job, and hopefully we can find a common place where we can meet in the middle. Because we need the NCAA and then we need our student‑athletes to keep doing what they’re doing on the basketball court, but most importantly off the court‑‑ getting good grades and getting their degree.
So I think it’s hopefully a great marriage that can stay together, and hopefully both sides can compromise.
Q. With both coaches having the NBA experience that they have, to what extent and in what ways can the NBA style be incorporated in the college game?
COACH KEVIN OLLIE: I mean, you coach for your personnel. So you’ve got to get personnel that can do certain things. But the college game is great, and I mean the NBA game is great. But it’s always different styles, it’s different athletes. When you go up to the pros, they know how to play basketball. They have been playing basketball their whole life. So to put different pro sets in is kind unfair sometimes to the college players, because they haven’t been experienced enough to learn different things and just ad lib a little bit.
So we just try to develop our players, quick hitters, pick‑and‑pop things. But the college game and pro game is a little different because of the experience. Them are grown men up there. They have been playing. They have been playing their whole life. So it’s a different type of game, but at the end of the day you got to put the ball in the basket, and hopefully we can do that Friday night.
Q. Getting back to Napier and Kane, you kind of gave us an idea of what you have to do to guard Kane, what kind of problems do you feel he will present for Shabazz? And how well do you think Shabazz will sort of rise to the occasion on this stage?
COACH KEVIN OLLIE: Your first question, we got to get back in transition with him. They run a lot of drags. They run a lot of isos for him. That’s on the post and that’s also at the 3‑point line where they clear the whole side for him and they just let him go one on one. So it’s just not Shabazz guarding him; my whole team has got to guard him. We got to be in low position. We got to be talking and pointing, and then we got to realize that we got a shooter, too. So once the ball is in the air, once we get it out of his hands, let’s fire back out to their shooters.
The second part of your question, I know Shabazz is ready. He’s been ready the whole season. He’s been ready last year when we couldn’t go to the NCAA Tournament. So he’s not scared of this moment. He’s not. That’s not saying he’s going to have this great game. He’s going to do whatever it takes for us to win. If that’s rebounding, that’s getting 11 rebounds, if that’s being a facilitator getting 10 assists, that’s what he’s going to do. If that’s being on the bench cheering his teammates on when Terrence Samuel in there, that’s what he’s going to do. He’s not scared of this moment and we’re not scared of this moment. It’s going to be a great game and hopefully we come out on tomorrow.
But it’s not going to be easy. Any game of this stature, there’s going to be some difficulties. We’ve got to dig our heels in, we got to get the right stops, we got to play defense. Because they score in an unbelievable average; average 83 points a game, 19 assists a game. They’re an offensive juggernaut, and we got to be able to get stops and we got to sustain stops, and we got to stay in the game, no matter what, if we get down or up 10. We got to stay in the game, and it’s going to be possession by possession. And the team that can compete and have discipline, is going to be the team that’s going to win.
Q. Talk about the season that Lasan has had, just in terms of has he exceeded your expectations coming in as a fifth‑year senior, new player joining a new group. And also what do you think this ride means to him after‑‑ he was playing right around .500 ball around when he was in GW, and now here he is in the Sweet 16?
COACH KEVIN OLLIE: First of all, Lasan is an incredible young man that’s got a lot of pride. He’s been great in our locker room, the things under the water line has been great with him, the things that a lot of people don’t see.
For him to be here in his last year, to finally get into the NCAA Tournament, I know he’s taking pride in it. He wants to keep going further, just like all our other guys do, too, but he’s just been amazing for us. He’s been kind of my versatile player, where I can stick him in four positions. He can play the one or he can play a smaller forward. And he gave me that versatility off the bench, but he also gave me another facilitator, being the third guy off our bench or the third guy that can be a facilitator and lead us in assists behind Shabazz and Boatright. He really gave me an option where I can manipulate the defense with him.
He’s just been great. He’s working towards getting his graduate degree and his Master’s Degree, and he’s just going to be a successful person once he leaves Storrs campus. But hopefully we impacted him in a way that will benefit him in his life after he leaves the Storrs campus, and I know he’s benefited our program a lot. He’s just been a wonderful man. He’s full of leadership character. That’s what we look for. We look for high character guys, we look for guys that understand teamwork, and the third thing, understands how to cheer for a teammate. And he does those three things excellent. He’s fit right in. That’s what we hope all our student‑athletes do.
THE MODERATOR: All right. Thank you, Coach. We’ll take questions for the student‑athletes now.
Q. Shabazz, a year ago at this time can you remember specifically what you were doing? Were you watching the games in your dorm or house or whatever? What specifically were you doing? Were you trying to watch the Tournament? Were you trying to avoid it? And how much better does it feel that you’re here this year?
SHABAZZ NAPIER: To be honest, I didn’t watch not one game. I was more into watching River Monsters, stuff like that. I didn’t want to watch because I felt like if I did, I would be aggravated or annoyed with it. But I just really watched certain TV shows, and I didn’t want to watch.
Q. What other shows were you watching?
SHABAZZ NAPIER: River Monsters was one of the biggest ones that ‑‑ these guys know, I love fishing. And I could get the smallest fish, but I think it’s the biggest fish ever. So just TV shows like that, I just sat and watched. Discovery Channel shows.
Q. For either of you: How do you view the matchup against Kane? The problems he’s going to present for you and that you will present for him at the other end? And for Niels, Coach always said that you would be part of many people helping guard Kane.
SHABAZZ NAPIER: Kane is a great player, but the problem is that everybody‑‑ you know, I think he’s definitely their motor, he gets them going. That’s what great players do. I’m pretty sure that if we try our best and try to contain him, which is sometimes difficult, because he’s seen everything. He’s seen and experienced everything throughout this whole year. We just got to try our best to contain him, and they shoot a lot of threes and they make a lot of threes. We got to do a good job of contesting shots, we got to do a good job of rebounding the ball.
And we just got to do a good job overall as a team of controlling the tempo we want.
Melvin Ejim is always going to create a problem because how good he is, Big‑12 Player of the Year, and we just got to do our best with all the guys that they have, and we just got to play our game.
NIELS GIFFEY: He said it. You have to contain him, limit his touches as much as you can, and then it’s going to be a team effort. You can’t focus too much on him because they got such a well‑balanced team and everybody can shoot. So it’s going to be a team effort, just know your personnel and knowing him and really, really just clogging up the lane to them.
Q. Shabazz, could you sort of explain how a lot of coaches have said that you’re one of the best ball‑fakers in terms of guards in the country. Is that something that you’ve always done? Is that something that you’ve honed since you’ve been here?
SHABAZZ NAPIER: I think that with my ability to make shots and penetrate and get guys, get other guys going, it makes it easier for me to pump fake and get guys in the air or something like that.
But it’s kind of something that I go to, if I need it. For example, I learned that from Kemba Walker. He did the step‑back pump‑fake, got you in the air, got to the foul line. When you learn something from a great player, and I believe he learned it from A.J. Price. So when you learn something from a great player, you tend to use it when you need it.
But I’m just, like I said, I have the ability to go to the basket or make a shot. And when that happens, it’s another threat to give a pump fake, because guys are looking for me to take the shot.
Q. For both of you: When Coach Ollie took over, how much of an NBA approach or NBA feel did he introduce into what you guys do?
NIELS GIFFEY: A lot of the sets we run are really pro sets, a lot of isolation plays, and he is so good at understanding or picking out the guys’ ability and putting it in the right setup and the right place. So that’s one of the things he did.
Then just continuing Coach Calhoun’s idea of playing hard basketball, playing UCONN basketball, going up and down the floor, and bringing that pro mentality to us, and making us understand that you really, really have to work for it. And it’s not the guy who is going to be the best scorer all the time who is going to make it to the next level or going to be successful in basketball, you have to be an all‑around player. You have to kind of be a guy with a lot of traits, and just bringing that mindset to us.
SHABAZZ NAPIER: Same thing. I think that Coach, he’s been in the league for a long time, a lot of years. And his ideas on how to run offense comes from that. A lot of things come from Coach Calhoun, too. You just intertwine those two things, and he’s just putting us in great positions to show what we have. And it’s our job to go out there and execute it, and hopefully we get the job done.
Q. For both of you: Learning from in your freshman year with Kemba, and now you have an opportunity to be the lead guard on this team, Connecticut. You know about the guard tradition. And you actually spoke about learning from great players. What did you actually learn that freshman year from Kemba and his wonderful performance? And does it inspire you or make you think about what the possibilities are for yourself this year?
SHABAZZ NAPIER: The biggest things I learned from him wasn’t what he did that was on the court, because I don’t think that can never be redone. I don’t think that we can repeat that or I can repeat that. A lot of things I learned was the intangibles, his leadership, his character on and off the court, his ability to get guys together and get them going and understand that we’re doing this together, not just one person.
I don’t think I’m able to do what he did. I just want to do what I’m capable of doing, my ability, and wherever that takes us is where we’re going. I’m not going to be out there alone having the show. I get recognized for a lot of things, but at the end of the day the only reason why I’m getting recognized is because of these guys behind me. These guys that get open, for example, Niels Giffey is one of the best three‑point shooters in the country. If I didn’t have him on my team, the court will be a little more clogged up. He gets me open, guys are not going to help off of him. I can do down the list with a lot of guys.
So it’s not what Shabazz is doing, it’s what everybody’s doing collectively. That’s why sometimes I’m open for a shot. I get recognized for a lot of things, but at the end of the day it’s not what ‑‑ I’m not making it happen by myself. Everybody’s making it happen. That’s what makes a good team.
NIELS GIFFEY: To go back to your question about Kemba, I think one of the things that I really learned from him is just the way he made the game easy for us. It was just like about having fun and going hard every day. And when I think back to it, it probably wasn’t that fun for him all the time. It wasn’t easy for him all the time, but he made it look easy to all of us who were freshmen. And he really was that motor of that team.
Just taking a step back and understanding that he took himself back at times, even though it might not have been easy for him all the time. He had so much media attention, people. Three years later and people always talk about him. And he was still a guy who was the funny guy in the locker room. He was still tapping people in the head or making jokes and all that type of stuff. And he just made it easy for us.
So I think at this point we understand that. We kind of got to do the same thing for the younger guys. Make it easy for them, make basketball fun, make it a team thing, and just keep everybody involved. Because that’s what he did and that’s kind of what we’re trying to do.
Q. Shabazz, how much will it help you to be playing in an arena that you guys are so familiar with, and how excited are you to be playing these games at the Garden?
SHABAZZ NAPIER: The thing that would help us is our great fan base is coming down and supporting us, like they always do, but it’s going to be a lot more of them. When we are down and when we’re up, they are still cheering. They give us the support, they give us that sixth man that we need to push us forward. When we’re tired, and especially when we are at home games and we’re tired, and they get us going, I don’t think anybody on the court would be tired after that. Guys are just exerting all their energy that they possibly have and pushing themselves to get the game. And that’s one of the biggest things that’s going to help us.
At the end of the day we played here a bunch of times, but the court is still the same. It’s going to be the same for Iowa State. The hoops are not going to switch when they shoot the ball. Everything’s going to be the same on the court.
So I think the biggest advantage we have is our fans. They have been doing it all season long and we so much appreciate them for that.
Q. For both players: Coach Ollie always makes a point with us to say how grateful he is that guys didn’t leave. Guys didn’t transfer when things were rough for Connecticut. What made you guys stay?
NIELS GIFFEY: For me personally it was just a decision that I made. When you think about it, I came in as a freshman and I had this great experience, going through the whole tournament, going through the Big East, and you take all of this positive energy with you, and you have all these great experiences and you kind of just take it in and kind of take it for granted.
But two years later, we are in this situation where everybody ‑‑ it doesn’t look as good as it did the first year. So for me personally, I just felt like I kind of owed it to the school or I wanted to stay loyal to the school because we had that great experience our freshman year.
So just holding onto that and just keep believing in that group and that core group that we had.
SHABAZZ NAPIER: Basically the same thing. I felt that I owed a lot to the university. My sophomore year I didn’t play the way I was supposed to. I wasn’t a great leader, and I felt like I owed a lot to the university. I felt like they stayed loyal to me and I wanted to stay loyal back. When you have that trust in someone and trust in the university to always have your back, if you run out on them, I don’t think that’s fair.
I grew up with a loyal family and I continue to still have that loyal family with the University of Connecticut. I think that’s the biggest thing, when you come Connecticut you learn two things: You learn the brotherhood and you learn how to stay loyal. And that’s what I’ve learned and I continue to push myself to understand that.
transcription courtesy of ASAP sports
photo credit: brad horrigan – hartford courant