The Connecticut Huskies have won the 2014 national championship in college basketball, the second time they’ve shocked the world since, well, three years ago when they won 11 straight games after receiving the ninth seed in the Big East tournament. No matter how good or bad the first four months of the season were, what matters is how the team is playing in the most important month of the season.
As I sat to write the preview for Iowa State’s eventual last game against Connecticut, I didn’t buy it. The American Athletic Conference? It was good at the top with the Huskies, Cincinnati, and last year’s defending champion, Louisivlle. SMU was a nice story that needed another year, because Larry Brown‘s awesome. Other than that? Memphis was down to their standards and the rest were a mix of old Conference USA and former Big East bottom dwellers.
Before UConn’s NCAA tournament run, let’s take a snapshot of their season since February 23rd. They lost by nine to SMU, defeated South Florida by five, defeated Rutgers by six, won at home against Cincinnati in an awful 51-45 slugfest, and got pulled apart 81-48 against the Cardinals and again in the AAC championship in a 71-61 final that was worse than the final score indicates.
But none of that mattered. What was missed was the Huskies’ incredible defense that held teams to 63.2 points per game and shooting 39.2 percent from the field. Shabazz Napier, in similar vein to Kemba Walker back in 2011, was Mr. Everything on the team by nearly leading the team in the following categories: 18 points, 5.8 rebounds, 4.9 assists, and 1.8 steals per game.
However, Napier couldn’t do it all inside like Walker could. But that’s when DeAndre Daniels stepped in. His best performance came against Iowa State, where he finished with 27 points and 10 rebounds, taking advantage of the Cyclones’ lack of frontcourt depth and overcoming an incredible night by Dustin Hogue.
As much as Iowa State fans want to believe just plugging in Georges Niang would have given the Cyclones the upper hand, that what-if game can’t be played. Niang’s defense wouldn’t have prevented what Daniels wanted to do. The Huskies offense, which averages 71.8 points per game, put up the second-highest tournament point total of 81 on them.
Now it’s possible that Niang could have taken over leading the team on offense with both seniors DeAndre Kane and Melvin Ejim struggling, but that could have impacted Hogue’s dominant day if more of the team was involved. Basically, playing the “what-if” game is easy but entirely implausible.
Defense, having your leaders step up consistently, making key plays, and having a program that develops and remains consistent in postseason success are all in the equation to come out of the NCAA tournament with a trophy. UConn had all of that in March, and what an incredible run it was. Iowa State had a disappointing time getting Ejim engaged after winning the Big 12’s Player of the Year award, and Kane had just a few problematic games that lasted all 40 minutes, but unfortunately one of those came in their final game of the season.
Sure, it’s a bittersweet moment for Iowa State fans. The lovely stat of the Cyclones losing to four of the six eventual NCAA champions, right next to the opponent’s home value, kind of sucks to put it bluntly.
But this year felt a little bit different. Everything was rolling on all cylinders until the end with an injury. This Cyclones team made clutch shots, finished off games, and came back from all kinds of adversity, something that didn’t happen even just a season ago. This team had the ability to win it all especially after winning the Big 12 tournament.
The greatest part they’ll be back there again next March. And like UConn, Iowa State will continue to develop that postseason success. It hasn’t translated into national championships like the Huskies have grabbed on to in their luxurious basketball history. But Cyclone fans can taste it.