STORRS, Conn. – Kevin Ollie has four seasons and a national championship behind him as coach of the Connecticut Huskies. He’s no longer a rookie head coach trying to find his way.
In fact, Ollie has proven himself against odds more numerous than the typical coach trying to build a career. As he replaced a Hall of Fame coach, he worked to keep a team together through a postseason ban from the NCAA. That penalty inspired the play of a survival roster on the way to the 2014 national championship. Then Ollie faced down rumors that he would move on to the Los Angeles Lakers or other NBA teams, while remaining loyal to his alma mater.
UConn’s recruiting was damaged. As the Huskies made the transition from the Big East to the American Athletic Conference, their reputation came under attack.
After all those emotional ups and downs, there is a feeling that the 2016-’17 season could be a fresh start.
Ollie has become much more than a caretaker for the program that Jim Calhoun constructed and converted to a national power.
These Huskies belong to Ollie. His fingerprints are all over this program and with so much potential in place, waiting to be explored, Ollie is prepared to leave a stamp on this season with another visit to the NCAA Tournament.
UConn’s players certainly believe.
“I think we could definitely go back and defend our championship in the [American Athletic] Conference,” sophomore guard Jalen Adams said. “And hopefully win the regular season conference championship as well. I know this team is capable of making a deep run in March, so hopefully we will just live up to those expectations.”
The expectations are the result of a drastically changed roster that includes the experience of Adams, guard Rodney Purvis, center Amida Brimah, and forwards Steven Enoch and Kentan Facey. In addition to the veterans, Ollie has brought in his best recruiting class, a Top 10-ranked group that has already given itself the nickname of “Top Five.”
Don’t forget transfer Terry Larrier, who spent his sit-out year in Storrs last season and may develop into one of the biggest surprises in the nation. Purvis, UConn’s leading scorer last season, and Brimah, both seniors, entered the NBA Draft and then withdrew their names to return. Consider them recruits the second time around.
Ollie wants this team to run on offense, push the ball up the court, rebound with gusto, and fast-break for easy baskets that result from UConn’s typical brand of aggressive defense.
It’s all about attack mode. That’s the way Ollie played point guard when he was playing under Calhoun and wearing the UConn uniform. He was reminded of how effective that mentality can be when the Huskies played their last game last season, losing to Kansas 73-61 in the third round of the NCAA tournament on March 19.
“Offensively is where we want to focus in more,” Ollie said.
“We want to take and make better shots. I want my offense to have flexibility with motion and constant ball movement. That’s what I dream about … just [having] the flexibility of different players playing multiple positions with motion on the court and ball movement. When teams overplay us, like Kansas did, we want to be able to play through that.”
Ollie’s five freshmen will be learning from the veterans at the beginning, but guard Alterique Gilbert has been doing special things in practice, the kind of things that impress his teammates. He will likely start in the backcourt with Adams, giving Ollie the option of using them together, separately, taking turns with ball handling and bringing the ball up the court. Gilbert is talented enough he may head to the NBA after one season, but that could be one very impactful season.
Larrier has earned praise from Ollie since he practiced last season. He may be the most versatile player on the team and could start at multiple positions.
“His length is ridiculous,” Adams said of Larrier. “He can guard [positions] 1 through 5. He shoots the lights out. He helps out all over.
“It’s just a fun team. Everybody is athletic, the bigs, the guards, everyone. I think we’re really deep at every position. I’m excited. I think we could go small, very small, small with a big or any [lineup].”
Brimah is healthy again after a tough junior season. He has gained weight to be a stronger force inside. Facey has done the same thing. Ollie is still concerned about rebounding, and that will be Facey’s assignment.
“I just want him to be a rebounding machine,” Ollie said. “We’re going to be playing some four out and one in. He’ll be our rover guy and we’re going to ask him to do a lot of different things. But I need him to rebound. That’s what I need him to concentrate on. Everything else will be icing on the cake.”
Freshman Juwan Durham is another long and mobile player who could help on the glass, block shots and run the floor, but he’s also the biggest mystery on the team. He will be brought along slowly because of ACL injuries to both legs that have kept him out of action since March 2015.
Newcomers Vance Jackson and Diarra Mamadou plus Enoch, a sophomore, will provide more depth up front. UConn might own the most frontcourt depth it has had in years.
Guard Christian Vital, the last recruit to sign in the class, figures to get time off the bench as well. He originally committed to UNLV but ultimately chose UConn over Louisville after the Rebels changed coaches. Vital can play either guard spot. He has been very candid that he decided on UConn because of his relationship with Ollie.
Ollie’s biggest task might be finding time for every player on the roster. The Huskies are deep, and by the time March rolls around, should be very good together.
“This team is not selfish at all,” Adams said. “People may sacrifice little things for the team and that just shows how great their character is. Everyone likes everyone else and we are going to do this together.”
That’s the legacy Ollie is trying to build at UConn. By the end of the season, that should be obvious.