Chances are, a lot of UConn fans won their March Madness brackets. Who else would have predicted the unprecedented run for the seventh-seeded Huskies to capture the 2014 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship? And then one night later, the Lady Huskies won their title in undefeated fashion. Celebrations may never end at Storrs. UConn, already the only Div. 1 university to win both basketball championships in the same year (2004), has again achieved the unlikely.
But beneath the dual titles, beneath the players embracing in a rain of confetti, and beneath the rowdy celebrations back home — beneath all that lies the months and years of work and sacrifice necessary to win.
This is what young athletes should take away from UConn’s basketball feat of 2014.
Tuesday night was the ninth title for the Lady Huskies since 1995. Their success derives from the steadfast guidance of longtime head coach, Geno Auriemma. Listening to announcers during the 2014 title game shed light on Auriemma’s effective philosophy. He values players who exert effort in practice as much as in actual games. If a player’s motor is lacking during practice, she will not play when it counts.
Youth athletes would be wise to take note. In sports, and in life, you get back — in terms of growth and accomplishment — what you put into practice.
On the men’s side, victory was a matter of heart and perseverance. Last year, UConn was barred from postseason play, due to justly deserved academic sanctions. And before that lost season, the team’s legendary coach Jim Calhoun retired. Faced with a program in flux, many talented players transferred to other schools. How shortsighted those transfers now look.
As with Auriemma, the men’s success in 2014 can be traced back their leader — second-year head coach Kevin Ollie. He was ideally suited to help UConn weather the uncertainty of 2013. As a college point guard playing for the Huskies from 1992-95, he was no superstar. Calhoun continually recruited new talent in an attempt to remove Ollie from the starting lineup. NBA teams declined to draft him, yet he carved out a 13-year career in the pros, bouncing among 11 franchises. Even as head coach he was unlikely to succeed. The handpicked successor of Calhoun in 2012, Ollie was initially offered just a seven-month provisional contract.
But there he was in Texas on Monday, cutting down the nets after his first NCAA championship.
Joining him were his equally perseverant players, including upperclassman stars Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, who both could have bailed on UConn following the 2013 ban. Instead, they believed in the patience, will and blind faith of their coach, and were richly rewarded.
Still, it was an unlikely reward. This was the same UConn team that, in the regular season, lost to Louisville three times and Southern Methodist twice. Few people thought they were championship caliber. Except themselves. Like their female counterparts, what lifted the UConn men was self-belief, combined with hard work and determination. That positive, dogged philosophy — again, in sports and in life — allows the improbable to be possible.