STORRS, Conn. — UConn guard Ryan Boatright didn’t watch the NCAA tournament last year. It was too painful.
The Huskies were banned from that postseason because players that preceded them at the school had failed to meet NCAA academic standards.
“I barely watched TV, because it was everywhere,” Boatright said. “It was hurting me every time I turned the TV on.”
Now the Huskies are back in the tournament as a No. 7 seed, and will face Atlantic 10 champion St. Joseph’s on Thursday in Buffalo, N.Y.
UConn players credit the adversity with giving them the tools to return to the tournament.
The low scores were first reported by The Associated Press early in the 2011-12 season, just months after Kemba Walker led the Huskies on an improbable run to the program’s third national title.
That was the beginning of what coach Kevin Ollie referred to this week as “dark times.”
Despite having a talented team, UConn struggled with consistency and leadership, and Hall-of-Fame coach Jim Calhoun missed numerous games with health issues. UConn lost to Iowa State in the first round of the 2012 tournament.
Within weeks, the sanctions became official, star center Andre Drummond and guard Jeremy Lamb left for the NBA and several other players transferred. Just before the 2012-13 season, Calhoun retired and handed the reins to Ollie, who had never held a head coaching job on any level.
“I thought myself, what was I going to do after that (loss to Iowa State),” said guard Shabazz Napier. “It still didn’t hit me that we wasn’t going to be in the postseason. It still didn’t hit me. But it was kind of mind-boggling. What should I do now?
“Then I was hearing everyone was deciding to leave and I didn’t know what to do. But I definitely thought to myself, there is always another chance to get out there. And I stayed and I gave myself the opportunity to do something.”
Last year, despite the transfers and the ban that kept them out of both the Big East and NCAA tournaments, the Huskies went 20-10.
This season, they are 26-8, and one of just two teams to beat No. 1 Florida. Napier, who is leading the Huskies in scoring (17.4 points per game), rebounding (5.9), assists (4.9) and steals (58 this season) was voted the player of the year in UConn’s new home, the American Athletic Conference.
The Huskies also have done their work in the classroom. Ollie announced in October that the team would report a perfect academic progress report score to the NCAA for the 2012-13 school year. That will become official in May.
“We’re back where we belong,” he said Sunday night.
St. Joe’s coach Phil Martelli said he doesn’t think the Huskies are hungrier than anyone else in the tournament, but believes they are prepared.
“I think when you have a staff like Kevin has acquired and you have a team that practices in an arena where they hang national championship banners, hunger and motivated and the next part of the question is nervous — I don’t anticipate that at all,” he said of the Huskies.
Forward DeAndre Daniels said everyone on this team chose to stay through the tough times or joined the team during them.
“Transferring never crossed my mind,” he said. “I’ll always be loyal to UConn, it’s just who I chose, it’s the school I love. It’s just exciting now, because we’ve been planting our seeds since we couldn’t make the tournament last year, and now it’s finally here and now it’s just time to get to work.”
The journey back isn’t over, Napier said.
“It’s definitely a special feeling to get another chance,” he said. “But you’ve got to take the opportunity at hand and take advantage of it. Hopefully, we do that.”