STORRS, CT - DECEMBER 02: Shabazz Napier #13 of the Connecticut Huskies goes up for a layup against the Florida Gators in the second half during the game at Harry A. Gampel Pavilion on December 2, 2013 in Storrs, Connecticut. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Three years after winning the whole thing and 12 months removed from NCAA sanctions that kept them out of the postseason tournament, the Huskies are back in the Final Four. They'll face top seed Florida Saturday in Arlington, Texas, a team they beat on Dec. 2 at Gampel Pavilion on -- yep, that's right -- a Shabazz Napier buzzer beater.
For second-year coach Kevin Ollie, who was an assistant on Jim Calhoun's staff during that improbable championship run in 2010-11, you never get used to making it this far.
"Seeing UConn in the Final Four is always a great message to send to our kids, our program, our donors, but it's especially special for what these kids have gone through since I took over the job (two years ago)," Ollie told ESPN's Andy Katz. "They're a resilient bunch, they play for the right reason -- and that was UConn on the front of the jersey -- and they believed in the program when a lot of people didn't believe in them. And to see them here, and to see Shabazz Napier here and Tyler Olander and Niels Giffey, it really means a lot to me. And I want their journey to continue."
A lot has changed since that Dec. 2 matchup. Ollie has watched his team mature while the Gators have reeled off 30 straight wins.
"We've changed a lot," Ollie said. "We've gotten better. In that game, certain players hadn't emerged yet (as) primetime players in our rotation -- Terrence Samuel, Amida (Brimah). All of our guys have gotten better; Shabazz has gotten better as a leader, Ryan Boatright has gotten better as a facilitator, DeAndre Daniels is emerging as that go-to guy that we can count on, not only on the perimeter but on the block. He's almost surpassed Shabazz in rebounds so that's always a good thing -- our point guard was our leading rebounder throughout the whole season -- so a lot of things have changed, but a lot of things have changed for Florida, too."
When Katz pointed out that Florida guard Scottie Wilbekin is now healthy, Ollie interrupted.
"He was healthy for most of the (Dec. 2) game too ... and when he went out they scored every possession down the court," Ollie said. "But him back playing full speed and Kasey Hill and Chris Walker, it's going to be a totally different team and we know that. But one thing I know: We have to play hard. We have to play at a Level 5, because I know the energy and the passion that they bring each and every game. It's the consistency that Billy Donovan preaches and he does an amazing job to get his guys ready to perform on any stage."
Tip-off is at 6:09 p.m. ET Saturday.