Three years after winning the national championship, two years after coach Jim Calhoun's departure and one year after being banned from the NCAA tournament, the Connecticut Huskies are back into the Elite Eight.
The program has Kevin Ollie to thank for the quick turnaround. The second-year head coach has seamlessly guided the storied UConn program through what could have been—and probably should have been—a very rocky transitional period and back to postseason glory.
It's never easy replacing a legend—especially one who still has an office down the hall—but Ollie has sure made it seem that way.
In his first two years, Ollie has led the Huskies to a 49-18 record. In his first NCAA tournament as a head coach, he has steered upsets over No. 2 Villanova and No. 3 Iowa State to take the No. 7 Huskies to the Elite Eight.
On Sunday, Ollie and his Huskies will meet Tom Izzo and his Michigan State Spartans at Madison Square Garden with a trip to the Final Four on the line. In a very brief time, Ollie has stepped out of Calhoun's looming shadow and begun creating his own legacy.
I could never fill Coach Calhoun’s shoes. I could never do that, but I could be the best Kevin Ollie I’m going to be. I never went in there like I’m going to fill those shoes and try to be Coach Calhoun. I’ve got to be Kevin Ollie.
I kind of say it like we’re from the same fabric but we’ve got a different suit. I want to play defense. I want to rebound. I want to be the aggressor on the basketball court.
Ollie's motivational and personal coaching style is very different from the stern demeanor that Calhoun maintained on the sidelines, but it's equally effective.
It's clear that his players love playing for him. The fun relationship the coach has with his team was showcased after UConn's Sweet 16 victory, when Ollie playfully slapped freshman Terrence Samuel after a group of players photobombed his post-match interview. Of course, it makes sense that he has a tight bond with his team—after all, Ollie was a player for much longer than he's been a coach.
Ollie played point guard for Calhoun and UConn from 1991-95, before embarking on a 15-year professional career. He first played for the Connecticut Pride in the CBA, the now-deceased minor league of basketball, before moving on to the NBA, where he played for 12 different teams in 13 years. Though he never stayed long, Ollie made an impact everywhere he went.
In an interview with Bill Simmons of Grantland, Kevin Durant gave Ollie credit for turning around the basketball culture in Oklahoma City during his time with the Thunder. Ollie also acted as a mentor for a young LeBron James in Cleveland.
James was quick to offer his former teammate a congratulations on Friday night:
Wanna send a HUGE S/O to my former teammate Kevin Ollie and UCONN on advancing to the Elite 8. Keep it going K.O. #StriveForGreatness— LeBron James (@KingJames) March 29, 2014
The transition from player to coach was a natural one for Ollie. After retiring from the NBA in 2010, he headed back to his alma mater to serve as an assistant coach under Calhoun. Just two years later, when Calhoun retired abruptly with health problems, Ollie took the reins.
It would have seemed like an impossible situation for most. Not only was Ollie following in the footsteps of a Hall of Fame coach in his first head coaching job ever, his team was also facing NCAA sanctions. Due to poor academic standing, the NCAA banned UConn from all postseason play in the 2012-13 season.
Ollie's first task as head coach was convincing star Shabazz Napier, who was a key player as a freshman when the Huskies won the national title, to stay at the school instead of transferring. After a recruiting pitch that focused on turning UConn into a tough, gritty, defensively minded team, Napier decided to remain loyal to the team.
It paid off. This season, Napier was the American Athletic Conference Player of the Year.
Next, Ollie had to keep the team competitive in his first year, despite the fact that nothing but pride was on the line. He talked with reporters about the team's journey last season:
We were banned from a lot of things. We couldn't come here for the tournament, but they weren't banned from loving and pushing and encouraging each other, and that's what it's all about. Those dark times, if you don't give up in the dark times, it will reverse, the wind will start going in your favor, your direction.
And I think that's what's happened now.
In Ollie's first year as a head coach, UConn won 20 games and had big wins over Syracuse and Michigan State. This year it had an up-and-down season, but made it into the Big Dance as a No. 7 seed. Perhaps motivated by their exclusion last year, the Huskies have been on fire this March.
Calhoun, who is currently a special assistant to UConn's athletic director, was on hand in New York to watch the Huskies take out Iowa State in the Sweet 16. Afterward, he greeted Ollie with a hug.
The coach that built UConn into a basketball powerhouse is still around, but make no mistake about it: This is Ollie's team now.
On Sunday, Calhoun will be in the stands. it's up to Ollie and his players to take out Michigan State and keep their magical March going.