by Peter Walsh
The opening game of tonight’s historic slate at Madison Square Garden pits the underdog UConn Huskies against the Iowa State Cyclones who lost one of its top players in big man Georges Niang due to injury in its victory over North Carolina last weekend. The Cyclones are an offensive juggernaut, ranking sixth in the nation in scoring and first in assists per game, while the Huskies go as point guard Shabazz Napier goes—if he’s playing well, UConn is tough to beat. Matched up against Napier is Cyclones point guard DeAndre Kane, who has emerged as one of the top players in the Tournament and has quickly caught the attention of media outlets and NBA scouts.
On the sidelines are head coaches Fred Hoiberg and Kevin Ollie. Hoiberg, known as ‘The Mayor’ around Ames, Iowa, played his college basketball at Iowa State and is as beloved as any coach in the nation. After long time head coach Jim Calhoun retired, Ollie was tasked with taking over and returning the program to prominence after UConn was punished with a post-season ban after numerous infractions. Interestingly, the two have a long relationship with one another as they were both being recruited to Arizona during high school and crossed paths many a time while playing in the NBA.
During yesterday’s practice, players and coaches from each team spoke with the media to give their thoughts on the game. Here’s the best of what they had to say…
On stopping DeAndre Kane and Iowa State’s offense…
Kevin Ollie: DeAndre Kane is 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 [Hoiberg] puts on the post and posts up a lot. 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. Shabazz is going to guard him, Niels [Giffey] is going to guard him, Our whole team is going to try to guard him, hopefully we can stop him.
I know they’re missing George Niang, but you got the Big‑12 Player of the Year in [Melvin] 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 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. The first key for us is to get back in transition, 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 got to get to the paint, and then we got to run their shooters off the 3‑point line.
Shabazz Napier: Kane is a great player, I think he’s definitely their motor, he gets them going. That’s what great players do. 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. We 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.
On the impact of Shabazz Napier…
Kevin Ollie: 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. 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.
On rebuilding the UConn program…
Kevin Ollie: 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.
If it wasn’t Shabazz and it wasn’t for our seniors taking on that pressure of saying, OK, I’m not going to leave. I’m going to stay here. I know Coach [Calhoun] 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. 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.
Shabazz Napier: 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. That’s what I’ve learned and I continue to push myself to understand that.
On the DeAndre Kane-Shabazz Napier matchup…
DeAndre Kane: I’m not looking at it as a one-and-one matchup. I know a lot of people is. He’s a great player. He does a lot of things for his team. He’s a leader out there. He makes big shots when they need it. He rebounds the ball, to be as small as he is, as good a guard does in the country. He puts his team in great positions to win. But we’re going to do whatever we can to slow him down, slow him down in transition and we’ll take it from there.
Fred Hoiberg: Two guys that love having the ball in their hands in clutch time. [Napier], I’m not sure I’ve seen a better guard in college basketball this year with what he does at the toughest time of the game. He’s just a hard‑nosed, tough kid that knows how to play. DeAndre is the same for us. When we need something to happen, we put the ball in his hands.
On the loss of Georges Niang…
Fred Hoiberg: Every game I have a play card where I draw plays that I think will expose the team we’re playing against. One side of the card is DeAndre and the other side is Georges, and then some other actions sprinkled in for some of our other players. So to basically have to throw out half of what we do and who we run it through is a judgment.
But I give a lot of credit to our guys for stepping in and filling in, and you can’t replace him with one person. It’s got to be a collective effort, and our guys did a great job of that against North Carolina.
On Iowa State’s program and playing style…
Melvin Ejim: From the coaching side, [Coach Hoiberg] done a lot of great things, but I think one of the most important things is just the type of scheme that we have. They brought in guys that were going to be successful four‑year players, and then they brought in guys that could help the program right away–a transfer like DeAndre who can impact the program right away.
When you have a coach who comes out in the locker room and does a bogus dance—not bogus, it was pretty good–but it does a lot for the team chemistry. I think outside of coaching, just the family relationships that he makes us build, and the things that we do outside of the game really helps the culture of our program.
Fred Hoiberg: To get our guys out there trying to play the right way, trying to play unselfishly, which we have gone a great job with that, leading the nation in assists, in trying to get out and play fast, that’s something that we do and we have thrived in.
The biggest message to our guys is if they go out and move the ball and have great spacing, you’re going to get good looks. That’s kind of what our offense is designed to do, to draw two guys onto one space of the floor and make the proper play.