UConn Basketball: What Kevin Ollie Has Learned in Whirlwind 1st Season
Kevin Ollie accepted a one-year contract to become UConn's head coach in September, when legendary Huskies leader Jim Calhoun stepped aside after nearly three decades at the helm. The university didn't use the term "interim coach," but that's essentially the role Ollie assumed following two seasons as an assistant under Calhoun.
The former Huskies point guard (1991-95) replaced a Hall of Famer and three-time national champion without a long-term commitment from the university. That storyline alone set the stage for a compelling Connecticut basketball season
Ollie faced instant adversity, guiding a UConn program that recently saw its pride take a hit when the team was deemed ineligible for the 2013 postseason due to a substandard Academic Progress Rate.
Here's an assessment of developments that have defined the inaugural season of the Ollie era in Stoors.
University Officials Believe in Him
It didn't take long for Ollie to convince University of Connecticut administrators that he is worth a long-term financial investment. UConn handed its 40-year-old head coach a five-year contract worth approximately $7 million.
"He has led this team,'' athletic director Warde Manuel told ESPN.com's Andy Katz during a New Year's Eve announcement. "He came into a very tough situation in his first time as a head coach."
The Huskies were 10-2 when the extension was announced. It's also important to note that UConn was on the verge of opening conference play.
The commitment came at an appropriate point in the year, providing Ollie (and his players) with some reassurance before the toughest stretch of the season.
His Players Have Pride
There is only one certainty in the Big East this season: UConn will not take home any postseason hardware. An academic-based ban sealed the Huskies' fate.
In instances like this, it's fair to wonder what kind of effort we can expect to see from team members, considering any potential for a championship (and all the glory that comes with it) is off the table. The Huskies have responded exceptionally.
Connecticut is 7-5 against conference opponents and is on pace for its best Big East regular season since 2009. UConn currently sits just two games back of first place in the conference and could continue to be the ultimate spoiler.
The Huskies, who have already beaten ranked opponents Notre Dame and Syracuse, still face Big East title contenders Cincinnati and Georgetown.
Ollie's feisty squad will impact this conference race, and this resiliency improves the program for the long haul.
Rebounds Are Hard to Come by These Days
The Huskies have proved to be an efficient team in many regards this season. Unfortunately for UConn, boxing out and ripping down rebounds are not among them.
Connecticut is second to last in the conference in offensive rebounding and ranks 13th in collecting defensive boards. That lack of a commanding presence in the paint has proved costly for UConn in particular losses this winter.
The Huskies struggled to contend with the physically superior frontcourts of St. John's and Pittsburgh in a pair of Big East defeats.
Rivalry with Syracuse Takes Center Stage in Conference Play
A golden era of Big East basketball ended this month when Syracuse and Connecticut clashed for one final time as conference foes. The Orange, who are bound for the ACC this summer, couldn't overcome a tenacious effort by UConn on its home court.
The Huskies prevailed, 66-58, putting a punctuation mark on a truly historic college hoops rivalry. An era defined by Hall of Fame head coaches Jim Calhoun and Jim Boeheim came to a close with Kevin Ollie walking to the postgame podium a winner.
He Has the Respect of Coaching Contemporaries
Kevin Ollie always came off as a likable NBA player during his 15-year professional career. A premier competitor on the practice court, he provided several playoff teams with a capable reserve point guard.
Ollie was clearly loved at his alma mater. He returned to Connecticut as an assistant coach in 2010, immediately after announcing his retirement from the NBA.
Now opposing coaches are beginning to appreciate what Ollie brings to the court.
Villanova head coach Jay Wright recognized Ollie's effort in his first season as Huskies head coach.
"I've got great respect for [Ollie]," Wright told Hartford Courant reporter Paul Doyle. "Very impressed with what he's doing. I don't think anyone can understand everything that comes with replacing a legend, even if you've played for him. Kevin has just done an amazing job, he really has. It is very, very difficult."
We'll see how Big East coaches feel about Ollie's success in the future when his Huskies rejoin the conference title chase.