STORRS, Conn. — Two years ago, UConn’s season came crashing to an end in an NCAA Tournament game against Iowa State.
Much was different then. UConn was the defending national champion and Iowa State was relatively unknown on the national stage. The game was in Louisville, hardly a home-away-from-home for the Huskies. Iowa State built a big early lead and won, 77-64.
“I’m as surprised as anybody,” Jim Calhoun said to begin what was to be his last postgame press conference as UConn coach. “Fred (Hoiberg) and the Iowa State team showed up at a different speed, a different level than what we played. … For whatever reason, we got caught as being nothing more than a street sign as they went by us a thousand miles an hour in that first 10 minutes of basketball.”
The UConn team began to break up as soon as that game was over, with players such as Alex Oriakhi, Jeremy Lamb, Andre Drummond and Roscoe Smith already discussing plans to transfer or enter the NBA draft.
But the remaining Huskies have caught up with Iowa State once again.
Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, who appeared on the podium with Calhoun that night, and Niels Giffey and DeAndre Daniels are still playing for UConn. For Iowa State, Melvin Ejim is still there and has grown to be the Big 12 player of the year.
“Well, there’s really not much you can take from it,” said Hoiberg, still Iowa State’s coach. “We had Royce White and we ran everything through him. And he has moved on to the NBA. They had Oriahki and Drummond inside then. This (UConn team) is obviously Napier’s team. Boatright can score in bunches. I’m very impressed with Daniels, and Giffey at the perimeter. This is a completely different game, a completely different prep.”
UConn and Iowa State cross paths Friday night, this time deeper in the NCAA Tournament. The Huskies have a different coach, Kevin Ollie, and the perception is that they will have a home-court advantage at Madison Square Garden for the East Regional semifinal at 7:27 p.m.
Hoiberg, who spoke via conference call on Tuesday, and Ollie, both 41, have been friends for more than 20 years, when both took a recruiting trip to Arizona as high school students. Later they were teammates with the Bulls for half a season, and when Hoiberg was assistant GM with the Timberwolves, Ollie played there.
“He’s one of the best teammates I ever had,” Hoiberg said. “There was no doubt in my mind he would be a successful head coach, just because of how smart a person he is, off court and on the court. Neither of us were guys you go to, great players, per se. But both of us thought about the game. I couldn’t be happier for what Kevin has accomplished.”
“They’re a very high level team,” Ollie told Sirius XM radio Tuesday, “Ejim, DeAndre Kane, Dustin Hogue, I could go right on down the list. I know they’re missing Niang, a vital part of their offense with his facilitating ability, but they come out guns blazing. Their tempo. And Fred, if he sees a mismatch, he’s going to keep going to it and going to it. That’s his NBA background.”
Hoiberg has a feel for what a UConn crowd at the Garden will be like, having been at Big East tournament games there as an NBA scout.
“I thought (UConn’s was) the best fan base out there,” Hoiberg said. “They really get into the game. We understand what’s in front of us. We played games on the road in the Big 12, played at BYU this year; all those hostile environments prepare you for a moment like this. You have to keep guys mentally strong, mentally tough. We had that in the Big 12 (tournament) this year, when we played Baylor and maybe 18,000 fans out of 20,000 in the building (were Baylor fans). It’s an advantage, no doubt.”
No. 3 seed Iowa State (28-7), a program that Hoiberg built quickly with transfers, fought through a tough stretch in January with losses to Oklahoma, Texas and two to Kansas in a five-game stretch. The Cyclones rebounded to win the Big 12 tournament and began the NCAA Tournament with a win over North Carolina Central.
But they lost Georges Niang (16.7 ppg), their versatile, 6-foot-7 forward, to a broken foot in the N.C. Central game. Behind Ejim (19 points) and DeAndre Kane (24 points, 10 rebounds), the Cyclones knocked off North Carolina on Sunday in San Antonio to advance to the Sweet 16. Ejim, 6-6, who has international experience with the Nigerian and Canadian national teams, averages 18.1 points and 8.4 rebounds, and Kane, the 6-4 point guard, averages 17.1 points and 5.8 assists.
“DeAndre is so versatile, he can facilitate offense from anywhere on the court,” Hoiberg said. “You’re not going to replace Georges with just one guy. Everybody’s got to have a little more on their plate.”
UConn (28-8) advanced from Buffalo, where the Huskies beat St. Joseph’s and Villanova, the No. 2 seed. Napier, the American Athletic Conference player of the year, and Ryan Boatright are Hoiberg’s headache this week.
©2014 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)
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