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_

N.C. State adds grad transfer Sam Hunt

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N.C. State added its fourth transfer this offseason. Like ex-Baylor guard Al Freeman, the latest one is eligible to play next season.

Sam Hunt, a double-digit scorer the past two seasons at North Carolina A&T, officially enrolled at North Carolina State on Monday morning.

“Sam is a great young man and will bring much needed depth to our backcourt,” N.C. State head coach Kevin Keatts said in a statement. “I want guys who are excited about being a part of our program and Sam really wants to be here.

“Sam is a combo guard that can space the floor with his ability to shoot the basketball. He is a good fit for the system and will bring a wealth of experience to our roster.”

Hunt, the 6-foot-2 guard, averaged 12.7 points per game last season, a dip from the 15.4 points per game he posted for the Aggies as a redshirt sophomore.

Hunt joins a roster that lost its three leading scorers from a season ago, one that ended 15-17 (4-14 ACC). Dennis Smith Jr. is a member of the Dallas Mavericks. Maverick Rowan also pursued a professional career and Terry Henderson was denied an additional year from the NCAA.

The Wolf Pack bring back forwards Abdul-Malik Abu and Omer Yurtseven as well as Torin Dorn.

Keatts, who took over the program after leading UNC Wilmington to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments, has already built for the future. UNC Wilmington transfer C.J. Bryce, 17.4 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game for the Seahawks, has followed him to Raleigh. Utah transfer Devon Daniels committed to the Wolf Pack the same day as Bryce. Both will have to sit out next season due to NCAA transfer rules. Bryce will have two years of eligibility while Daniels will have three.

LaVar Ball stars in an uncomfortably entertaining segment on WWE’s Raw

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LaVar Ball’s statements and antics over this past year always seemed better suited a professional wrestling ring.

It was only natural that the patriarch of the Ball family — and the head of the Big Baller Brand — made an appearance on WWE’s Monday Night Raw at the Staples Center for an awkwardly entertaining segment with WWE Intercontinental Champion The Miz.

With sons, Lonzo — in his first appearance in the Staples Center as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers — and LaMelo looking on, LaVar was the center of attention. When The Miz mentioned something about a partnership between the two, the scripted interview went south. It resulted in LaVar saying nonsensical things like, “There’s only two dudes better than me, and I’m both of ’em!” before later taking off his shirt. When Dean Ambrose, a WWE superstar feuding with The Miz came out on to the ramp, LaVar didn’t quite grasp the concept that that was his cue to stop talking.

This segment was somehow entertaining and cringeworthy at the same time.

Now that Lonzo is beginning his NBA career, maybe it’s time LaVar try something different. A manager in the WWE may just be his true calling. He’s certainly had plenty of practice.

Maryland lands commitment from five-star 2018 forward

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Maryland added to its 2018 recruiting class with its second commit, the newest addition being a five-star in-state product.

Jalen Smith, a 6-foot-9 forward from Baltimore powerhouse Mount St. Joseph, committed to the Terrapins, making the announcement on Twitter.

“I believe that I can academically and athletically achieve my goals at home through my commitment to the University of Maryland … Go Terps,” he tweeted as part of a long passage.

Smith is listed as the No. 13 overall recruit in the Class of 2013 by Rivals. He joins four-star swingman Aaron Wiggins in Mark Turgeon’s current recruiting class.

Playing for Team Takeover on the Nike EYBL circuit, Smith is averaging 10.9 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 1.0 blocks per game.

Recent grad’s joyride reportedly did $100,000 of damages to Mizzou Arena

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A recent graduate and temporary employee of the University of Missouri took an early morning joy ride that reportedly could rack up around $100,000 to Mizzou Arena.

According to Dave Mater of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Nathaniel J. Contant, 23, who graduated from the school in December 2016, drove his Volkswagen Passat through a gate and eventually on to the floor of the 15,000-seat on-campus arena.

At 7:15 a.m. Sunday, MU police were dispatched to Mizzou Arena for a report of property damage. Officers determined that around 4 a.m., the suspect drove his vehicle through a closed gate on the south side of the arena. He ran through a garage door and drove into a dock area where he damaged several golf carts that were stored in the area. He also drove his car onto the basketball court. The man couldn’t leave through the area he used to enter the building, so he drove through the arena’s press gate.

Contant, unsurprisingly, is no longer an employee of the university. He’s being charged with second-degree burglary and first-degree property damage, both of which are felonies. He was released on a $4,500 bond.

The motive for this early-morning joyride remains unclear.

Despite the hype surrounding the upcoming Mizzou season — one that includes the debut of new head coach Cuonzo Martin and the projected No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft Michael Porter, Jr. — Twitter users couldn’t help but poke fun at the dismal recent history the Tigers have had.

(h/t Kansas City Star)

Vance Jackson transfers to New Mexico

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With more than a handful of departures this offseason, New Mexico is set to have a new-look roster for the 2017-18 season. On Monday, Paul Weir, now at the helm of the program, landed a player who should make an impact in the three remaining seasons of eligibility he has left.

Vance Jackson, who spent this past season at UConn, decided to make the move from Storrs to Albuquerque, picking the Lobos over Rutgers, San Diego State, TCU, and Washington.

The 6-foot-8 rising sophomore will have to sit out next year due to NCAA transfer rules before resuming his collegiate career in the fall of 2018.

“The coaches — they trust in me,” Jackson told Geoff Grammer of the Albuquerque Journal last month during his official campus visit. “We’re on the same page. They see a vision.”

Weir, who led New Mexico State this past season to a NCAA Tournament appearance in his one and only season as head coach, succeeded Craig Neal in April.

This offseason has been headlined by transfers, though, those mostly were about players leaving the program. Jackson is the second transfer to land at UNM with Akron’s Antino Jackson electing to use his final season of eligibility with the Lobos. Antino Jackson is a graduate transfer, allowing him to play immediately next season.

Vance Jackson, who was rated as the No. 80 overall player in the Class of 2016 by Rivals, averaged 8.1 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 1.4 assists per game while shooting just under 40 percent from three for the Huskies as a freshman.