STORRS, Conn. – There’s a lot of young talent waiting to be developed. There are familiar faces hoping to mature and refine their games.
The next task is mixing them into a team. Connecticut basketball coach Kevin Ollie couldn’t be more excited as he takes on the challenge of molding the next edition of the Huskies.
The chase officially is on again. UConn held its annual Husky Run, a conditioning tradition that began under Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun, on Wednesday. Saturday, Ollie began his fifth season as Calhoun’s successor with the first practice of the year.
The workout lasted 3.5 hours, and not everyone lasted until the end. That’s another tradition which started with Calhoun.
“First practice is always tough,” said senior center Amida Brimah, who won the 3.1 Husky Run in a time of 21 minutes, 59 seconds. “We just come in mentally ready. It’s always a shock to the young guys.”
Coming off a 25-11 season that included the American Athletic Conference Tournament championship and a trip to the second round of the NCCA Tournament, the Huskies have a Top-10 recruiting class moving into Gampel Pavilion.
Most preseason publications include the Huskies among the Top 25 teams in the nation. Based on the five freshmen in that class – Alterique Gilbert, Christian Vital, Vance Jackson, Mamadou Diarra and Juwan Durham — UConn generally figures to fall in the range from No. 15 to No. 25.
The enthusiasm in Ollie’s voice is a dead giveaway that he has higher hopes.
“This is a good class for building,” Ollie said.
“All of these guys have versatility. All of them play multiple positions. Of course, you’re going to find their roles. They are going to define their roles, how they play, how they play and think. We have a lot of different things on offense and the defensive end that we try to implement.”
Ollie has had his squad on an accelerated pace since early summer, when the rookies arrived for summer school and drills. In those limited times when the coaching staff can work with players, Ollie said more time was spent with team drills.
“I’m going to be counting on these freshmen to play a lot of minutes,” he said. “I changed up summer workouts. They were more team oriented. We got more things done. We implemented a lot of our offensive scheme than in past years.”
The urgency in Ollie’s voice is also based on UConn’s aggressive schedule. After two exhibition games, UConn will open the regular season Nov. 11 against Wagner, and then play Northeastern (Nov. 14). Then it is off to the prestigious Maui Jim Maui tournament with an incredible field and a first-round game against Oklahoma State. Along the way, UConn stops in Los Angeles to play Loyola Marymount on Nov. 17.
“We have a month [of workouts] and then you look at our schedule the first three weeks of schedule are brutal,” Ollie said. “It’s almost back-to-back games for a lot of them. Then we’re traveling to [Los Angeles] and then to Hawaii for three games. We’re going to have to have some smart guys pick up the offensive schemes, but most importantly the defensive schemes really quick here.”
Brimah and senior forward Kentan Facey have bulked up in the offseason and will be expected to provide muscle inside. Wingman Rodney Purvis was UConn’s leading scorer last season and is a senior. Sophomore Jalen Adams is back after a roller-coaster season, not unusual for a freshman point guard.
“I know this team is capable of making a deep run,” Adams said. “Hopefully we just live up to those expectations. Everyone is competitive. No one likes losing. The guys have been here working hard since the start of summer. We want to see all of that hard work pan out.”
Adams and Ollie had some personality clashes last season. Adams admits he has become more “coachable” during the offseason.
Here’s what Ollie had to say:
“We need him to start off and be a key contributor from the get-go, especially playing in a tournament like Maui [Nov. 21-23], we need him ready to go, playing on all cylinders, being in attack mode. That comes from being in tip-top shape.
“The thing I want to see, when he gets adversity, that reveals true your true man and true self, that’s when I want to see him bounce back a little more than last year. Can he motivate himself and motivate his teammates? We’ve got to see that in the heat of the battle.”
Ollie is ready to push this team to greatness. The 43-year-old coach finished the Husky Run in 22:38, third overall and trailing just Brimah and Jackson (22:07).
To all the players left to trail their coach in the results, Ollie is waiting for them.
“They’ll feel my wrath,” Ollie said with a sly grin.