Playing time has never been handed to Niels Giffey. The "defined role" has always belonged those who were bigger, faster, older.
Giffey is the guy who fills in the blanks.
"In Germany, I always played with older guys," Giffey said. "When I was 16 or 17, I played with guys who were 20 or 21, because it's a whole different system over there. You've got to find your spots, find something to get your minutes. And defense is always something that coaches love."
Giffey said he was one of the quicker players and a penetrator in Germany. Now with UConn undersized and thin up front, "This year, I'm a big guy," he said with a laugh.
For two-plus seasons at UConn, Giffey, the 6-foot-7 junior from Berlin, Germany, has been picking up loose change, and on Sunday he cashed it in big. With R.J. Evans injured, coach Kevin Ollie turned to Giffey to hold the Huskies together.
"Niels was that glue guy, and with R.J. being out that was something we were going to miss," Ollie said after UConn's win. "He filled that void perfectly."
Despite the 73-62 win over Stony Brook, UConn (5-1) fell out of The Associated Press Top 25 poll. The Huskies were No. 21 last week.
Giffey scored 15 points and had eight rebounds, both career highs, in addition to his usual assortment of little things — scrambling for loose balls, hustling to the right place at the right time — that usually count only in the eyes of coaches and teammates. He played 29 minutes.
"Giff has tremendous talent scoring the ball," Shabazz Napier said. "And he does all the little things that you want. Things he does are not really always on the stat sheet, but this was a great day for him to get it going."
Giffey played in 41 games in 2010-11, starting 10, averaging 2.2 points, 1.4 rebounds and 9.9 minutes. He had four points and six rebounds in the championship game against Butler. Jim Calhoun used the phrase "constant motion" to describe Giffey's play. Last season, Giffey was slowed by a knee injury early but played in 30 games, averaging 2.8 points, 1.4 rebounds and 11.7 minutes.
This season, Giffey has been coming in off the bench. He played 14 minutes against Michigan State in the opener, hitting a three. He did not score, but had five rebounds in 19 minutes against New Mexico. He didn't get a field goal but hit five of six rebounds in 21 minutes against Quinnipiac. Ollie sees the same qualities behind the scenes that coaches love.
"He plays every possession," Ollie said. "He goes through every drill. Every cut is hard. Never any moaning, 'Coach, practice is too long.' It's 'what do I need to do?' And once he does it, 'what else you got for me Coach?' He says, 'let me play the toughest offensive man.' "
The man Giffey wanted Sunday was Stony Brook senior Tommy Brenton, the America East defensive player of the year, a hard-nosed forward who had 14 rebounds against Canisius the day before.
"I took my chance," Giffey said. "I wanted the key matchup against [Brenton]. I knew who I was going against. … When I boxed him out over and over, little things like that keep you motivated."
Evans, the post-grad transfer from Holy Cross, has been providing leadership as the oldest player on the roster. But Giffey, 21, has the wealth of international experience, the high basketball IQ and a championship ring. Teammates enjoy mispronouncing his name — GIFF-eee instead of giff-EYE — as announcers sometimes do. It's a term of endearment.
An economics major, Giffey has remained on a fast track to his degree at UConn, yet another thing for Ollie to brag about.
"I'm so happy for him," Ollie said. "Academically, he comes in and does his thing … and every day I get the same thing from him. I get the effort, I get the enthusiasm. We practice at 7 in the morning, we practice after Thanksgiving [dinner], whether he plays two minutes or 40 minutes, I get the same thing from him – that's what I love about him."