Kevin Ollie

New coach Kevin Ollie is Connecticut’s Optimist-in-Chief during the program’s trying times

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NEW YORK, N.Y.—When Connecticut guard Ryan Boatright received a text from teammate DeAndre Daniels telling him that the longtime coach of their program, Jim Calhoun, had decided to retire, Boatright was in disbelief.

“I thought he was kidding. We were just shocked,” Boatright recalled to NBCSports.com at Big East media day.

“Since he hurt his hip [in a bicycle accident in August] he was there every day on crutches. We thought if somebody can be dedicated enough to be there with a screw in his hip, he’s definitely coming back.”

But the day that had loomed for years had finally come, the day Calhoun would hand over the keys of the Connecticut program to a successor was here, and at Big East media day, it had finally set in.

Reporters still gathered around the Connecticut table to ask questions, with this team coming off of a berth in the NCAA tournament, but the man answering the questions on behalf of the Huskies was different.

Gone was the often stubborn, sometimes grumpy old man with the New England accent and in his place was, by comparison, a young man and former player who spoke with the eloquence and optimism of a Sunday preacher, today speaking to a congregation of non-believers.

And rightfully so were these non-believers steadfast in their attitudes, considering the mass exodus of talent from Storrs after the NCAA slapped a postseason ban on the program, compounding that with the departure of the man who had long been the face of this perennial Big East contender.

But when 39-year-old Kevin Ollie speaks, people listen. In the face of difficult questions, Ollie’s answers toe the line between cliché and perfect sense, remarkably almost always shading toward the latter.

“I don’t see obstacles, I see opportunity,” Ollie said. “It’s always been tough. I don’t see it like a lot of other people see it.

“Whether it’s seven months, seven years, or 27 years, I’m going to take it one day at a time and I’m not going to take it for granted.”

Ollie, a 13-year NBA veteran, takes over at his alma mater after serving as an assistant under Calhoun since 2010. Often seen as a player’s coach, Ollie has had to reshape his approach as the leader of the program.

“He’s always been the same person, character-wise,” Boatright said. “But his coaching style, him being in a higher position, he has more to say and demands a lot more respect from everybody.”

“My first impression of him was like, ‘Wow, this guy is super positive,’” junior guard Shabazz Napier said. “He’s all about preaching the right words and preaching the right things.

“As long as we walk through that valley together, we all should be fine. That was he always says.”

According to Napier, players had a good sense of who Calhoun’s successor would be, with Ollie as the leading candidate.

Having played at Connecticut for four years, Ollie, having secured the job, sees this as an extension of a long Husky career that Calhoun promised him more than two decades ago.

“He told me the first time I came on a recruiting visit [as a player] that I’d stay in Connecticut. I was like ‘No, I’m not,’” Ollie recalled. “Now, 22 years later, I’m still in Connecticut.”

But behind the flowery language, a number of challenges reside.

Jeremy Lamb and Andre Drummond have both move on to the NBA. Alex Oriakhi, Roscoe Smith, and Michael Bradley are all at other schools, continuing their careers.

The postseason ban had some ripple effect in recruiting, landing the Huskies New York standout Omar Calhoun, but perhaps putting a damper on a more extensive recruiting haul.

Despite all of that, leave it to Ollie, the self-identifying Husky for more than half of his life, to bring a relentless optimism, exalting the program even in its most trying times. Beyond what he can accomplish on the court in 2012-13, this may be the greatest skill that he brings to the Connecticut sideline.

“This is a special place for me,” said Ollie. “I’m always going to be a Connecticut Husky. This is the only brotherhood I know.”

Amen.

Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_

VIDEO: Duke’s Grayson Allen beats No. 7 Virginia at the buzzer

Duke's Grayson Allen (3) and Marshall Plumlee (40) react during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Louisville in Durham, N.C., Monday, Feb. 8, 2016. Duke won 72-65. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
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Notre Dame’s Steve Vasturia sparks come-from-behind win over No. 13 Louisville

Notre Dame’s Steve Vasturia (32) goes up for a shot over Boston College’s Idy Diallo (4) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 23, 2016, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Robert Franklin)
(AP Photo/Robert Franklin)
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Demetrius Jackson scored 20 of his 25 points in the first half and Steve Vasturia scored 15 of his 20 points in the final 20 minutes as Notre Dame landed a 71-66 win over No. 13 Louisville on Saturday afternoon.

The Fighting Irish trailed by as many as 11 points early in the second half, but Vasturia’s hot shooting combined with Notre Dame holding Louisville to just 15 points in the final 15 minutes made all the difference.

The Fighting Irish are not as good as they were last season, but they are built in a similar mold. Jackson, as we expected, as become one of the nation’s most dynamic point guards, impossible to slow-down in isolation and ball-screen actions. Steve Vasturia emerging as a legitimate secondary option offensively and Zach Auguste is one of the nation’s most underrated big men and one of the most dangerous as the roll-man in ball-screens.

Combine all of that with a handful of shooters creating space and Bonzie Colson’s emergence as a force on the offensive glass, and Mike Brey once again has one of the nation’s most lethal offensive attacks.

Where they struggle is on the defensive end of the floor, which is what makes the end of Saturday’s win so meaningful. The Irish entered the day ranked 232nd in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric, which more or less means they’re as good as a bad mid-major program at keeping their opponents from scoring.

But they don’t have to be great to be able to win games.

They have to be good enough and they have to get important stops.

That’s precisely what happened on Saturday.

Whether or not that actually becomes a trend for this group will be something to monitor — it happened for Duke during last year’s NCAA tournament — but the bottom-line is this: Notre Dame does something better than just about anyone else in college basketball, and that’s score the ball.

On the nights they are able to gets some stops, they are going to be able to win some games. In the last eight days, they’ve proven that, beating North Carolina, Clemson on the road and Louisville.

And that makes them dangerous in March.