UConn Huskies head coach Kevin Ollie as well Shabazz Napier, Niels Giffey, Ryan Boatright and DeAndre Daniels met with the media on Saturday to discuss Sunday’s matchup in the Elite Eight with the Michigan State Spartans.
Q. Talk about Branden Dawson and Adreian Payne as a tandem and the problems they create in terms of matchups and figuring out how to defend them and what they have kind of become cohesively?
COACH KEVIN OLLIE: That’s a tough job creating, trying to find matchups for them guys. First you got to play hard, you got to do your work early. You can’t let them establish low‑post position. So we want to do our work early. We want to be aggressive, if we decide to trap and we want to limit them to no second‑chance points. Branden Dawson does a wonderful job getting second‑chance points, and we can’t let them do that and get easy buckets.
So our focus is to do our work early, push them off their sweet spots and make it hard for them the whole day.
Q. When you were a college senior your final game was in the Elite8. What are your memories of that game, and now that you’re back to this game as a head coach, does this hold any significance for you personally?
COACH KEVIN OLLIE: No. The last Elite8 I remember is 2011 when we won, and went to the National Championship. So that’s the one I’m worried about now.
The last one ‑‑ in 1995 it was my last game in an UCONN jersey. So it ended not the way I wanted to, but I still remember the fond moments I had with my university and with my teammates, that I still have as friends to this day. But the last Elite8 I remember is winning, and going on and playing in Houston.
Q. For Shabazz and DeAndre, you guys have each probably had chances to leave, whether it was not being able to go to the post‑season last year or possibly going to the NBA. Why did you stay? And getting to this point does this kind of make the decision pay off?
DeANDRE DANIELS: We stayed because we’re, first of all, we didn’t transfer because we’re loyal to UCONN and one another and the coaching staff. And just coming back just for everything. Just not the basketball, but just for life and just for school. And with Shabazz to get his education, which is great, but we’re just loyal to UCONN.
SHABAZZ NAPIER: Like I always said, I felt like I owed this university a lot. I felt like after my first year we won, and the sophomore year I didn’t play up to my capabilities. I felt like I owed the university, as well as the coaches and my teammates a good year. And I just also felt like I felt something special with this team, everybody came back last year, who is on the team today, and I just felt that we had something that we were playing for for that year, and we just got to keep pushing each other and hopefully we get to the top.
Q. Shabazz, off of that, you always talk about how important last year was leading into this year. Last year of course started with the win over Michigan State. How much momentum did that game give you guys for the rest of the year?
SHABAZZ NAPIER: For that year it definitely helped us. Michigan State, we knew they were a great team. We knew it was going to be a tough game, and we just went out there and we wanted to play as hard as we can. We understood that win or lose it really didn’t matter since we were not going to the Tournament, but we had so much passion for the game that we wanted to go out there and give them our best effort. And the respect that we gave them and especially with the crowd there, it was just something that came over us that we wanted to win so badly.
But that’s a whole different team. We don’t expect that game to be anything like this game. Michigan State, they have grown. We have grown. And we know this is going to be a dogfight and that game we’re not even thinking about it. It’s a new game and a new day.
Q. Kevin, the Germany game the beginning of last season, how significant was that for you? Not only as your first collegiate win as a head coach but going into the season with no post‑season and all that stuff. With as that a particularly poignant and significant win for you guys?
COACH KEVIN OLLIE: First win for me as a head coach, the players, it was just a great, like Shabazz said, it was just great to honor our soldiers, honor our Air Forcemen and just to be in that venue, to play in front of that crowd and give back and have them smile a little bit. I wasn’t worried about myself and the first win; just to see that crowd and just see how much they appreciated us.
And just having in mind student‑athletes being around on the base with those guys. And they were sharing stories about their service and what they have been through. And they are almost the same age as our student‑athletes, and it clearly puts life into perspective. I think that was a good time for us to bond as a team, when you’re away from other things and you got your immediate family here with you, your brothers. It really gave us the opportunity to bond and forged a memory that we’ll always have, and nobody can ever take that away from us.
Q. Shabazz, you were saying you think it’s going to be a different game, how different do you feel your team and this program is where it was entering last season? The coach was still an interim coach at that time, and just as people are handling more uncertainty. So how different do you feel this team is, you specifically, not even just the game.
SHABAZZ NAPIER: I think one thing I know for sure is that we have experienced so much for the past two years. No one left besides the seniors, and everybody that came back understood what it takes to get to the next level. With the chemistry we have, with the brotherhood we have and the experience the core group that we have, and especially with the coaching staff we got two years under their belt now, I think that we understand how hard it takes. And we noticed that in practice from the first day, when Coach Ollie had us running around with no basketballs for like 30 minutes. And we just wanted to go out there and give everything we possibly can.
So the biggest thing I think that is different from that first game against them, Michigan State that is, is the experience. We have been through a lot, we understand that this is definitely going to be another dogfight. We don’t expect them to back down and I hope they don’t expect us to back down. It’s going to be a fight, and we’re just hopeful that we’ll be on top.
Q. A lot of time when you’re the guy that follows the legend, it doesn’t work out terribly well. Where did the comfort and confidence for yourself come from that it’s been able to work out pretty well for you already?
COACH KEVIN OLLIE: I just really get a lot of confidence from God. I know He’s put me in this position. I love this university, and hopefully my passion shows through. I love my players, because they give me everything I can ask for as a coach but not just on the basketball court, off the court.
And just the opportunity that I have to coach my alma mater, come back, I mean it’s just a dream come true for me. Being from South Central, coming to Connecticut and having the opportunity to coach, it’s a wonderful feeling. I just want to do my best and be the best coach I can be, but also be a person that they know I have their back at the end of the day. Hopefully my players know that. We have great times and sometimes they don’t like me a lot, but that’s just coaching. I try to push them and try to help them find something that they have inside. At the end of the day that’s all I want to do.
I want them to be better people than basketball players, and I hope they know that about me by now, being two years as an assistant and two years as a head coach.
Q. As you replaced Jim, Tom had to replace Jud. He talked about in Germany he talked to you about that. Do you remember what he said to you and how much you appreciated it at that time?
COACH KEVIN OLLIE: I just appreciate Coach Izzo from what he’s done, the culture he’s built at Michigan State and how he kept it going after Jud. The thing that sticks out to me is he just said “Be yourself.” I can’t be Coach Calhoun. I can’t build his program from ’86 when he arrived, I can’t do that. But I can be Kevin Ollie. I can take some great life lessons I learned from Coach and build on them and just try to create my own, forge away my own program and going forward. And that’s all I’m trying to do.
We’re going to build it on love. We’re going to build it on toughness and togetherness. And one thing I learned from Coach is it’s all about family. Your brothers, they all have each other’s back, no matter if it’s down times or no matter if it’s up times we’re going to have each other’s back and that’s how these guys are playing right now, and that’s what we want to continue, no matter what’s going on.
Q. Shabazz, you said you felt like you owed something, because of your sophomore year or because of that NCAA Tournament game?
SHABAZZ NAPIER: My sophomore year. That’s the reason why I didn’t transfer. I felt like I owed something. That’s why I came back my junior year.
The reason why I came back my senior year is because I promised my mother I was going to get a degree.
Q. What do you think changed for you? Was there anything specific that happened?
SHABAZZ NAPIER: My sophomore season, we had one of the best teams in the country. I’m not sure. I think we were ranked, 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 in front of me my freshman year. It was quite‑‑ I was quite flustered most of the time.
But I felt like I didn’t play to my capabilities my capabilities that year, and I wanted to show my teammates, show the fans, show the coaches that I’m going to come back strong and I’m going to come back better.
Q. Shabazz, the last time that you guys made this run you came from the Big East Conference. Now you’re doing it as part of the American Conference due to the landscape change of college basketball. Is it any different coming from the American Conference or the way that basketball has kind of laid out these days?
SHABAZZ NAPIER: I guess. The difference is one is Big East, one is AAC. I mean we’re just playing basketball. I don’t know if that’s a difference at all. I just felt like that American is one of the, I believe, one of the best conferences in the country, Top‑5. Top‑5 of our programs in that conference was ranked at the end of the year. So I think that the only difference is the name. We have some great talent in each conference, and we’re not really looking really back at it. We are here to represent the university and also represent our conference the rest of the tournament.
Q. For actually for Niels, this is the best UCONN team from three‑point range since the 2004 team that won it all. A lot of you guys can shoot so well from three, but Niels your role really boosted in a big way this season. Were you expecting that sort of responsibility coming into this year or did it develop? And what do you attribute that to in the past few months?
NIELS GIFFEY: I kind of expected it for myself and I think the way we play this year is creating so many matchup problems for other teams with me and DeAndre playing the three and the four, just being able to stretch out the defense. And then our guards are just one of the best in the country at penetrating and finding other people. I think we have a lot of different weapons that we can use and utilize, just to stretch out the defense and put them in a position where they have to choose who to cover, and from there on definitely it helps us as shooters out there.
Q. Ryan, when you play a team like Michigan State, how much is it about toughness?
RYAN BOATRIGHT: It’s all about toughness. That’s their identity. They’re going to come out and try to punk you. They’re big down low. They got some strong guys on the floor. The guards are big. So it’s all about toughness, mentally and physically.
THE MODERATOR: All right. We’ll excuse you to the locker room and take questions for Coach.
Q. Getting UCONN to an Elite8 like this does tremendous things for the team and the school’s profile overall. It affects how people see them. It looks like UCONN is obviously still a nationally relevant program but over the past two years with all the realignment, there was certain speculation about how the school would transition, both after Jim had left and into a new conference. Did you care or think about that stuff as you got the job and as you took this program on in terms of, we need to keep this prestige, UCONN as a Top‑10 national program or is that stuff that you haven’t really worried about over the last two years?
COACH KEVIN OLLIE: Those are things I can’t control. What I can control is our attitude, how we play together, are we playing with effort, are we playing with passion. And I knew the talent we had in our locker room. I knew what type of character we had in our locker room. So we did those different things and we brought that character leadership to the floor, I knew we were going to win and I knew we were going to stay relevant.
Like I said the last season, people didn’t see us. We were just lapping everybody. We were just lapping them. We were in working while we waited, and that’s what we need to do each and every day, we’re going to work. And we just wanted last season we wanted teams to be like, why are they working so hard? Why are they playing so hard? Everybody was saying we weren’t playing for nothing, and a lot of media outlets saying we weren’t playing for nothing, but we were playing for something. We were playing for what’s on our jersey, and that means a lot. If you step on our campus and the pride we have for UCONN, it means a lot to put on that jersey.
Q. What’s the biggest difference you see between Shabazz now and two years ago?
COACH KEVIN OLLIE: He told you. He has a wonderful gift, and now he’s giving away his gift. He’s not secluded and not trusting anybody. Now he’s all right to say “I made a mistake and look at me, I’m going to correct it.” And before he wasn’t able to come to that realization that “I made a mistake” or not give away his gift. He’s encouraging guys to be better. He’s encouraging himself to be better.
The first battle is within. And he’s conquered within. Whenever something comes up, he goes to the next play. He recovers better now than he did in his sophomore year. I think that’s a true testament of a leader to say “I’m wrong and now I’m going to prove you guys right. I’m going to prove my coaching staff right and I’m going to go out and be a better person each and every day.” And that’s what he’s doing. He’s an amazing leader. He’s an amazing basketball player, but he’s an amazing person. He’s a coach’s dream to have a point guard as smart as he is. Like I said many times, he’s my unpaid assistant coach and I love him to death.
Q. We have talked a ton about experience in the last ten minutes. In what ways this month have you seen that manifest itself, particularly with Shabazz and Ryan? And how has that helped you where maybe if you had a couple younger guys, you wouldn’t be where you are now?
COACH KEVIN OLLIE: I just think those guys are playing hard. They’re playing together. They’re connected. We talk about connecting on and off the basketball court. Talking to one another, it’s two ways, you can either be liked or be respected and we talk about respect a lot. We want to be respected. We want to challenge each other in that locker room, and nobody take it personal. Only thing we want to do is make UCONN be a winner at the end of the day, and that’s not always on the scoreboard. That’s the spirit of the team. We want our spirit to be right.
Last night I know Iowa State was coming back, but I knew our spirit was right, and everybody was playing for one another. And that’s always a good thing as a coach when you know your team is in there fighting for one another and that’s all we want to do. That’s the culture we want to build. That’s the culture we want to have consistently, each and every year.
Q. You’ve had kind of a unique first two years as a head coach. I’m wondering what surprised you? Has anything? Obviously your relationship with Jim, I’m sure he’s prepared you on a lot of things. You’ve seen a lot. You’ve been an assistant. But what, has anything been unexpected?
COACH KEVIN OLLIE: I didn’t expect Jim to retire when he did because he was in there, we were recruiting very hard and one day he said, “All right, it’s time for me to retire. I want to spend a little time with my grandchildren and go play a little golf in January.” And I was surprised with that, because his energy was good, his health was good.
But at the end of the day I just wanted to be who I am. I knew I had a great passion for this university, and it’s a lot of things that are involved in it. But I have a great coaching staff. That coaching staff when I took over had probably about 40 years of head‑coaching experience. We had Coach Blaney, I had Coach Miller, Coach Hobbs. Then I had two wonderful young assistants that know what it is to be national champions. They were our first national champions in 1999, and that’s Ricky Moore and Kevin Freeman. So it made my job easier.
I had Coach Calhoun there. I had Geno Auriemma there. I had the great Dee Rowe there. All these guys I can go and use them as a sounding board, and it was just a great situation for me, but at the end of the day you take suggestions, but you got to make the decisions. And as a coach, I wanted to make the right decisions. I wanted to stay hungry, but I always wanted to stay humble. And it’s not about me, it’s about the university and me treating everybody the same, and going out there for one thing, and that common goal is us. And that’s what we believe in and that’s what I’m all about. It’s not one player. It’s about a team effort. And that’s what I try to establish, and that’s what I continue to try to establish in my young men.
Q. Last season when you’re talking with your team about why they should played hard and playing for pride, how did this season fit into that knowing, that there would be a time, they would get a chance again to play in the post‑season, and how maybe last season could build into that next chance?
COACH KEVIN OLLIE: Yeah, that’s what faith is all about. When you can’t see it, you still got to believe it. Most of the time we couldn’t see it last year. But we knew we were continuing to plant seeds and sooner or later it was going to be that right time when we were going to be ready for this moment. And that’s what you do when you have faith in one another, you have faith in your God and you believe. If you believe anything, you can accomplish anything. And that’s what we never wavered on our belief. And those guys stayed together and now they’re reaping the benefits.
But everybody has their season and your season might not come, but you got to stay working hard and you got to stay dedicated to your craft and you always got to get better at something when you step out on the basketball court. That could be cheering a teammate on, and everybody has a job but you got to get better at something every time you step out on the court. I know these guys get tired of hearing me preach but I’m going to be in their face and I’m going to keep preaching because I know it works. If you stay together, you believe and you keep fighting for one another, good things always are going to happen.
It’s no secret. It’s no secret recipe to it. It’s just hard work. Hard work is going to make you successful. I don’t know when, but it’s going eventually going to make you successful. That’s what those guys did last year and I thank them to death for it.
Q. You played for 11 NBA teams. I think you played for 12 or 13 head coaches. That’s a really unique basketball life to learn as a player from that many different diverse elite coaches. How do you think that has helped you as a head coach to have that knowledge? And is there a NBA, one or two of the NBA head coaches that stand out, that have had some kind of impact on how you’re coaching now as a head coach?
COACH KEVIN OLLIE: Yeah, the first one that stands out is Larry Brown. He’s still my great friend today. If it wasn’t for Larry telling me to take this job, I don’t know if I would have took it. I wanted to get an unbiased opinion and I went to Larry. And Larry said, “I’m going hang up the phone on you if you don’t go back to UCONN. I thought you were smarter than that.” That’s his exact words.
So he was just telling me to stay in college. “It’s a great dream to come back and coach your alma mater. You would be a fool not to take it.” And he is such a great person. He’s so personable. He treated me like I was Allen Iverson and that always stuck with me. That’s why I try to treat every one of my guys the same. He worked out with me more than he worked out with Allen Iverson. He worked out with Todd MacCullouch more than he worked out with Dikembe Mutumbo. He treated us the same and I always remember that. That’s why I always want to be humble, and I always want to treat my players first. They make the program. That’s what I learned from him.
I could go through a bunch of Hall‑of‑Fame coaches that I played for, Chuck Daly, just a great person, God rest his soul. I learned so much from Chuck. Also he taught me how to dress, too. He was always creased up. He always had that blue suit on, you know. He was a great coach. And just my last coach Scottie Brooks, and just that organization at Oklahoma City, how humble they are. I learned a lot from just watching how they uphold their organization, and from Sam Presti all the way down, they did a real good job. And their culture kind of stood with me because it wasn’t about KD, it was about the team. And that’s how he kind of built that. And it always stuck with me. And I’m trying to bring that to the University of Connecticut, and then hopefully we can continue to have that mantra.
Q. It’s kind of gone viral here, your interview last night on national television, at the end you gave Terrence Samuel a smack there as it was breaking up. What all happened there? Did he make a gesture that needed a teaching moment or were you just goofing around?
COACH KEVIN OLLIE: No, we were just goofing around. It wasn’t no big deal. So we were just goofing around and they play a game, and they were putting bunny ears behind me. It just wasn’t nothing.
Q. Going back to Kevin Durant, he recently said that the Oklahoma City culture, you were the player most responsible for shaping that culture, even though you weren’t there fore a long time. What do you think you taught Kevin Durant, and how might that translate to a college basketball?
COACH KEVIN OLLIE: I sure didn’t teach him how to score 30 points a game. So I don’t take no credit for that.
Kevin and Russell, you don’t have to teach those guys too much. I appreciate the comment, but them guys are just, they’re just are workers. That organization is a great organization. I thank them for taking a chance on a 38‑year‑old point guard and bringing me in just for that one year. They taught me more than I believe I taught them, just a player for his magnitude to be so humble.
In that interview, I know a lot of people caught on to what he said about me, but I caught on to what he said about the end, that I want to be known as a servant. And that’s what I believe. A player of his magnitude to say “I want to be a servant” is pretty big time. And the humility that he shows, I want all our players to have that humility, and I think that’s why he’s such a great player. And he’s going to be a great player for a long time.
And he just wants to win. That’s what I’ve seen in him. A tireless worker, always trying to give, always trying to evolve as a basketball player. And if I can just bring a little something to the table, that’s good, but he gave me probably more than I gave him. I appreciate our friendship. We’re still friends to this day. We talk on occasions. We’re always praying for each other. And I just love him. I love the things that he’s doing. It’s not only the basketball player, but it’s how he carries himself. When he gets I know interviewed, it’s not about himself, it’s about a team. And that’s a special individual when you got that type of talent.
Q. Talking to Karl Hobbs about his journey this morning, I wondered how important is having a guy like that on your staff who has been a coach, a head coach for 10 years? What has that meant? What has he brought to the table? How has he happened you here during this run?
COACH KEVIN OLLIE: See, a lot of people get caught up in they’re my assistant coaches. They coached me in college. And that story should be written. Glen Miller coached me my freshman year and my sophomore year. He left to Conn College and then Coach Hobbs coached me my junior and my senior year. So to have those guys on my staff, they were there when I was a knucklehead running around school, didn’t know what I was doing. They were right there to reprimand me when I was wrong, to encourage me when I needed encouragement when my head was down. When Coach was getting on me, they were telling me to stay with it. “Coach really loves you,” and I didn’t understand it.
But those guys been there for me when I didn’t even know anything about college basketball. I was just a freshman running around. So to have those guys on my staff is just a wonderful compliment to me, and they know what it takes to be a head coach and be in that seat that I’m in. So they helped me out. I can’t even put a price tag on how much they helped me out.
Q. He said he wasn’t sure when you realized you thought you would be a head coach. I wondered when did you know coaching is my future? Was there a moment, was there a year where you where it hit you?
COACH KEVIN OLLIE: I always wanted to stay in basketball. I used to get a little flak from my teammates and with the Timberwolves, with Oklahoma City towards the end of my career I wanted to keep the scouting reports. So every scouting report I had, I still got them to this day. And different plays that they ran, looking at timeouts, look what the coach drew up, looking at film. I wasn’t the greatest player, so I always had to watch film and try to get an advantage on my opponent. So if Coach threw me in there for five minutes, I better know my assignment. And I always just prided myself on dedication.
But I kind of knew I wanted to be a coach, so I used to hold those scouting reports of different teams and different plays and that. So when I get in that position I’d have the knowledge, the X‑and‑O knowledge but also the knowledge to get my guys prepared for the battles each and every day.
Q. Does it feel like you’re playing in front of a home crowd and how important is that?
COACH KEVIN OLLIE: I do feel out here, I do feel our fans energy. They have been incredible. Just to see the fans up there, our student section, they all had their same white shirts. You could see it. It’s a great feeling. But at the end of the day it’s a basketball game, like I keep saying.
One thing I try to tell my guys, we played in Memphis twice. And it was probably about 17,000 people there screaming for Memphis and we came out with victories. So we like the crowd but at the end of the day, you got to win your individual battle and then you got to do it collectively as a group.
So we want to give our fans something special. It will be amazing to play 40 full UCONN basketball and get a win, but I know it’s going to take every ounce of guts we have, every ounce of sweat and tears that we got to win against a great Michigan State team. But it will be wonderful to do it here in Madison Square Garden, where we have so many memories.
Q. You talked about the bigs being probably the toughest thing that you’re going to have to match up against tomorrow. In your game last night there was a lot to like about how your guys played. What did you like that you want to see carry over? And what do you need to see improved on to matchup and overtake Michigan State and punch your ticket to Dallas?
COACH KEVIN OLLIE: Yeah, probably what I don’t want to see, I don’t want to see a person get 34 points. But we did a great job on Ejim, who is a Big‑12 Player of the Year. I think Amida started it with his length, making him shoot over the top. We are going to have to do the same thing with Adreian Payne, but then Dawson, we got to keep him off the backboard. I thought we did that in spurts last night, but we have to do it at a level five tomorrow’s game at 2:30. We’re going to have to hit first. We’re going to have to commit to hit. We’re going to have to corral basketballs and 50/50 situations, where it’s could either go their way or our way. We got to get every one of those balls. Because they’re a tough‑minded team. And I think we’re tough, too. Instead I think I know we’re tough. We got some resilience in us and guys are going to fight through.
But we have to do the small things, we got to box out, we have to limit their second‑chance points and we got to get back in transition to establish our five‑on‑five defense.
THE MODERATOR: All right. Thank you, Coach.
COACH KEVIN OLLIE: Thank you.
Quotes courtesy of ASAP Sports Transcripts
photo credit: brad horrigan – hartford courant