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_

Federico Mussini goes coast-to-coast, beats buzzer with and-1

CINCINNATI, OH - FEBRUARY 03:  Chris Mullin the head coach of the St. John's Red Storm gives instructions to Federico Mussini #4 during the game against the  Xavier Musketeersat Cintas Center on February 3, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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St. John’s capped the first half with a 6-0 run.

Sophomore guard Federico Mussini went coast-to-coast to beat the buzzer, and draw the foul, as the Johnnies went into the break up 42-33 on city rival Fordham.

The 6-foot-4 guard had gone cold during a five-game stretch, but since Thanksgiving he’s scored in double figures in four consecutive games, including on Thursday night.

Washington State coach begins game on opponent’s bench

Ernie Kent
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In September, during the Coaches vs. Cancer Gala in Spokane, Washington, there was a live auction, which included the chance to be Idaho’s honorary coach for a regular season during the 2016-17 season.

Washington State head coach Ernie Kent’s $2,000 bid more than tripled the next highest bid, according to the Spokesman Review.

On Wednesday night, during Washington State’s game against the Vandals, Kent sat next to his counterpart on the Idaho bench.

Kent returned to his side of the court following the game’s first possession.

Behind 16 points from Ike Iiroegbu, the Cougars defeated the Vandals, 61-48.

 

Given Washington’s struggles, just how hot is Lorenzo Romar’s seat?

Lorenzo Romar
AP Photo/Stephen Brashear
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We tried to warn you what was coming on Wednesday night.

We tried to tell you just how bad things were for Washington right now, that, according to a coach that had faced the Huskies this season, “they were so ******* bad defensively” that “they looked like they hadn’t been coached.”

That’s not a good look for anyone, let alone a head coach that has missed the NCAA tournament the last five seasons despite having five first round picks come through his program during that time.

Which is why you shouldn’t have been surprised that the Huskies were gutted by No. 8 Gonzaga, losing 98-71 in a game that was never competitive at any point. And, given that Markelle Fultz, the potential No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, is on the Washington roster, it’s the nightmare scenario.

So.

We need to start talking about the elephant in the room, because there’s a lot to unpack here:

Just how hot is Lorenzo Romar’s seat?

RELATED: What has gone wrong with Washington this season?

The simple answer? Scalding. Romar is one of just three Power 5 head coaches that have missed the NCAA tournament for five straight seasons without having to find new employment. You don’t get six tournament-less years and survive, not at this level.

But there’s more to the conversation that simply relaying the number of first round picks he’s failed to get to the Big Dance.

Four of those five first round picks played in two different seasons, meaning that in the other three seasons, Washington was led by C.J. Wilcox, the No. 28 pick in 2014, and Nigel Williams-Goss. In 2011-12, Washington had Terrence Ross, then a sophomore, and freshman Tony Wroten on the roster. They started slowly out of the gate, going 7-6 in non-conference play, before winning the Pac-12 regular season title outright. They missed out on the NCAA tournament in large part due to the fact that the conference as a whole went 1-29 against the RPI top 50; only two Pac-12 teams earned bids that season. Ross and Wroten both left after the season.

The other year that Washington had two first round picks was in 2015-16, which both Marquese Chriss and Dejounte Murray shocked everyone by becoming one-and-done talents. Both were drafted almost entirely on potential; Chriss was clueless defensively, fouling out of 15 of the 34 games he played, while Murray’s jumper left him a long way away from impacting an NBA game. The conversation about this Washington team would be totally different right now if Fultz had those two on the floor with him.

Part of the reason those two were able to leave early was because of Romar’s coaching style – he lets his most talented players play regardless of whether or not they’re making mistakes – and in part because the 2016 draft was bad.

Romar is, in part, a victim of circumstance, even if he dug himself into this whole in the first place.

RELATED: For Michael Porter Jr., Washington was all about family first

Washington is still paying Romar a relatively small amount. After the 2010 season, when he led the Huskies to his third Sweet 16, Romar got a 10-year contract extension worth $1.7 million annually. It runs three more years after this season and comes with a $3.2 million buyout, which isn’t massive but is expensive for an athletic department that projected to operate at a $15 million deficit in 2016. Then you have to consider what it would cost to hire an upgrade on Romar.

For comparison’s sake, Tubby Smith made $1.8 million in 2015-16 at Texas Tech and got a raise to more than $3 million-a-year for the next five years at Memphis despite the fact that he wasn’t the guy the school initially targeted. But Brad Underwood will make $1.2 million a year for five years at Oklahoma State, which makes him the lowest-paid coach in the conference.

If new Washington AD Jennifer Cohen wants to hire a new coach, she’d certainly be able to afford a replacement that we be, at the least, a respectable name, but there’s no guarantee that a replacement is going to have any kind of success there. Romar is far and away the most successful coach Washington has ever had. He’s been to six NCAA tournament and three Sweet 16s in his 15 seasons. The Huskies reached the Final Four in 1953, and in the nearly 50 years between that day and the day that Romar was hired, Washington reached just six NCAA tournaments and two Sweet 16s.

Romar is not having the same level of success that he had when guys like Brandon Roy and Isaiah Thomas were on his roster, but Washington is still somewhat relevant due to the pros that are coming through Seattle. There’s no guarantee that any replacement will make Washington more likely to get to the NCAA tournament, but at least Husky fans get Markelle Fultz this season and Michael Porter Jr., a top five prospect and the son of current U-Dub assistant coach Michael Porter Sr., next season.

That’s certainly more enjoyable than rooting for, say, Washington State.

And it’s certainly a factor that Cohen has to consider. Porter clearly picked Washington because Romar, his godfather, is part of the family.

“As we continue to look where we’re going and where we think we can go and what our plan is, then I’ll have more information about it,” Cohen said at her introductory press conference. “But absolutely, I’m 100 percent behind him right now.”

And if Washington can’t get back to the Big Dance?

“We haven’t gotten to that point yet,” she said. “So we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”

CBT Podcast: ESPN’s Dana O’Neil discusses her book about Villanova

Villanova head coach Jay Wright celebrates as he cuts down the net after the NCAA Final Four tournament college basketball championship game against North Carolina, Monday, April 4, 2016, in Houston. Villanova won 77-74. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
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On today’s podcast, I was joined by ESPN’s Dana O’Neil, one of my personal favorite writers who has penned a book chronicling how Jay Wright was able to build the Villanova program into a national title winner.

Dana spent seven years as a beat-writer for the Wildcats before making the move to ESPN, and she has some great stories about how the book came together and, frankly, how that Villanova team came together.

It’s a little “Inside Baseball”, but it was a fun conversation about a book that you know is going to be really good.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher and Audioboom

VIDEO: World War II Veteran play anthem on harmonica before Pearl Harbor Invitational

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Peter DuPre’, a veteran of World War II, opened last night’s Pearl Harbor Invitational between Seton Hall and California with a moving rendition of the National Anthem, which he played on his harmonica.