ARLINGTON, Texas -- Richard Hamilton and Ray Allen, NBA veterans and former Connecticut standouts, were standing 15 feet from the podium as the Huskies -- their Huskies -- celebrated atop the podium at AT&T Stadium while confetti fell from the rafters.
Connecticut, a 7-seed that lost to Louisville three times in the regular season by a combined 55 points and finished third in the new American Athletic Conference, had just won the national title by defeating the rumbling Kentucky Wildcats 60-54 on Monday night. "Man, just imagine if you'd gone to Las Vegas three weeks ago and...," Hamilton said.
Before he could finish, Allen began to nod. "You'd win money," the Miami Heat star said.
Few outside Storrs, Conn., thought the Huskies would be here. Of the 11 million-plus people who entered a bracket into ESPN.com's Tournament Challenge, .016 percent had the Huskies and Wildcats facing off in the championship.
But UConn coach Kevin Ollie, who represents a new breed of young, relatable coaches, thought this was attainable. And his players believed him when he told them they could win a national championship a year after the NCAA blocked the program from the postseason because of APR (academic progress rate) failures.
He's been the motivator, the teacher and the leader all season.
And now, he's just the winner.
"They've got something special inside of them," Ollie said. "I wanted them to step outside of their egos and just play basketball the right way. And that's what they've been doing through this magical run. When we lost by 33 to Louisville [on March 8], everybody said we were over with. Those guys have been through so much. When it was dark days, they still played together. And now we're in the light and it's real good to see the emotions on those kids' faces because they're the ones who stuck in and believed. A lot of other people didn't."
Welcome to the new age of coaching.
Ollie, 41, made money in the NBA as a gritty guard for 12 franchises in a 13-year playing career. Most of his coaching peers began their careers as low-level assistants and pushed through the various hierarchical rungs to eventually secure head-coaching gigs.
Ollie didn't do it that way. And that's fine.
Longtime coach Jim Calhoun essentially bequeathed this Connecticut program to his former standout guard, then an assistant coach, two years ago. Ollie's limited time on the bench -- a common knock against young coaches -- was fodder for doubters when he accepted the job in 2012. He had coached only two seasons as a member of Calhoun's staff. But he was ready. Clearly.
"Every day, you saw these guys being inspired," Allen said. "You saw them out there playing with so much passion. You saw Kevin's passion on the floor. That's how he always played. ... I don't believe that there's ever a traditional path of life. We all find our journeys in many different ways."
Ollie's rapid ascent is remarkable but no longer foreign. Ollie is a member of a new breed of younger coaches who've rebuked tradition and assembled successful programs with tactics past generations did not embrace.