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Kevin Ollie leads No. 7 UConn to Final Four despite transitional state of program

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NEW YORK — Kevin Ollie had some big shoes to fill when he took over the UConn program prior to the 2012 season.

He was replacing Jim Calhoun, a legend in Nutmeg State for turning Storrs, CT, into the home of one of college basketball’s elite programs. Calhoun won three national titles and made a fourth Final Four at a program that had a non-existent hoops identity before his arrival. He quite literally built the UConn program.

Ollie was Calhoun’s hand-picked successor.

And he was taking over the program at a time when UConn was hurting. They were coming off of a disappointing, opening round tournament exit after entering the year as the No. 1 team in the country in the preseason. They had just wrapped up their probationary period for the violations that were committed during the recruitment of Nate Miles and were heading into a season where they were banned from participating in the postseason thanks to low APR scores.

That postseason ban meant that UConn would be forced to miss out on the final installment of the Big East tournament as we know it, as their bid to move into the ACC was not accepted, forcing the Huskies into the American and creating rivalries against the likes of South Florida and Houston instead of Duke and North Carolina.

Andre Drummond and Jeremy Lamb went pro. Alex Oriakhi transferred out of the program.

That’s the hand that Ollie was dealt.

And in his second season as UConn head coach, in the first year he was eligible to lead a team into the postseason, the Huskies are headed to the Final Four after knocking off No. 4 Michigan State, 60-54.

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Boo Willingham saw this coming.

A seldom-used reserve that played for the Huskies from 1991-1995, Willingham knows Ollie as well as anyone this side of Ollie’s wife knows him. They were roommates for four years in Storrs. Willingham was the best man at Ollie’s wedding. “That’s my best friend,” Willingham said while celebrating in the UConn locker room after the game.

“I know the fabric of Kevin Ollie. I know what he’s made of,” Willingham said. “The first day he stepped on campus as a freshman, he came in and was competing against one of the best guards in the country in Chris Smith at the time. He was a little skinny from California that didn’t back down. He poked his chest out, he had a couple of fights in practice and he got into with a couple of guys.”

“He was a tough guy that loved to compete. And he loved to get other to compete with him.”

It was that competitiveness that kept this team and this program together last season. The Huskies had nothing to play for in 2012-2013, and yet they still managed to win 20 games in their final season as a part of the Big East conference.

“Everybody was saying we weren’t playing for nothing, and a lot of media outlets saying we weren’t playing for nothing, but we were playing for something,” Ollie said on Saturday. “We were playing for what’s on our jersey, and that means a lot. If you step on our campus and the pride we have for UConn, it means a lot to put on that jersey.”

He’s been tasked with trying to keep the Huskies, a school and a program that he loves, relevant as a top ten basketball program when it’s the limited value of the school’s football program to the companies that broadcast games that has put them in a position where their rivalry with SMU will be more important than their rivalry with Syracuse; where Sunday’s visit to Madison Square Garden will be their last postseason appearance in a building that Shabazz Napier refers to as UConn’s “third home” for the foreseeable future.

That won’t be easy to do, and reaching this Final Four doesn’t change that fact. Ollie will still be fighting an uphill battle, especially when you consider that the guy that carried the Huskies all season long, Shabazz Napier, won’t be in a UConn uniform next season.

But what this win does prove is that the Huskies picked the right guy for the job.

“He proved me and a hell of a lot of people right,” Calhoun said after the game. “He’s like a son to me. He’s got character, he’s got great knowledge of the game, he works exceptionally hard, he can relate to the kids. And he’s got all UConn guys around him. That fiber of UConn has not gone any place.”

All you had to do was look up into the crowd on Sunday afternoon to see that. Among the 19,000 fans that packed into the Garden were a myriad of UConn alumni. Khalid El-Amin, Rip Hamilton, Ben Gordon, Emeka Okafor, Taliek Brown, Cliff Robinson, Andre Drummond. Ricky Moore and Kevin Freeman are on the UConn coaching staff. Even Kemba Walker’s mom showed up.

The support system is there. The UConn program is very much the UConn family. There is more than enough history and fan support to sustain the program.

The future of the program is cloudy, but the Huskies aren’t worried about the future. At least not right now. They’re worried about the present. They’re worried about playing Florida in the Final Four.

That’s a Final Four, I might add, where they will not be joined by anyone from the ACC or the new Big East.

Cal and San Diego State set three-game series

LAS VEGAS, NV - MARCH 10:  Jarmal Reid #32 of the Oregon State Beavers tries to steal the ball from Ivan Rabb #1 of the California Golden Bears during a quarterfinal game of the Pac-12 Basketball Tournament at MGM Grand Garden Arena on March 10, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. California won 76-68.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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Cal and San Diego State played last season in the Las Vegas Invitational and decided to play more often.

According to multiple reports, the two teams will play each other the next three seasons, starting with a neutral-court matchup in Sacramento on Nov. 21. The game in Sacramento will be unique in a couple of ways, as it will be the first college basketball game in the Sacramento Kings’ brand-new home arena. It will also be Cal’s first game in Sacramento since 1947.

After the Sacramento game during the 2016-17 season, San Diego State will host the Golden Bears the next season and Cal will host the Aztecs the following year to close out the three-game deal.

With both Cal and San Diego State returning plenty of talent from last season, this season’s contest should be one of the more intriguing non-conference games between schools out west and it should be fun for the players as they get to take the floor in a new NBA arena.

Report: Creighton’s Zach Hanson to miss a few months following knee surgery

OMAHA, NE - MARCH 3: Zach Hanson #40 of the Creighton Bluejays fights for position with Daniel Ochefu #23 of the Villanova Wildcats  during their game at CenturyLink Center March 3, 2015 in Omaha, Nebraska.   (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)
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Creighton will be without a key big man for the start of practice as senior Zach Hanson will be out after having knee surgery.

According to a report from Marjie Ducey of the Omaha World-Herald, the 6-foot-9 Hanson will likely be out for eight to 12 weeks. Creighton head coach Greg McDermott told Ducey that Hanson will hopefully be available when Creighton opens its regular season in November.

As a junior, Hanson was a key rotation big man for the Bluejays as he put up 6.8 points and 3.1 rebounds per game, making one start on the season. As McDermott noted in Ducey’s story, he’s not concerned about Hanson missing practice time from a learning curve standpoint but he is a bit worried about his conditioning. Before the knee surgery, Hanson was also nursing some ankle injuries that he was dealing with during the season, so he hasn’t had a great chance to get in proper condition.

This loss will definitely hurt Creighton as they have a ton of backcourt pieces for next season, but not as many in the front court. Hanson’s an experienced player who will help once he returns but it will something worth monitoring to see what kind of condition he’s in during the early season.

VIDEO: Mixtape of the Under Armour Association

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Now that summer basketball is nearly finished, a lot of good mixtapes are beginning to pop up from this spring and summer’s action.

Ball is Life just dropped some highlights from all of the Under Armour Association events from this spring and summer in one mixtape and it’s loaded with high-level players making tremendous plays.

Some of the top Class of 2017 prospects included in the video include Trevon Duval, Kris Wilkes, Ira Lee, M.J. Walker and North Carolina commit Jalek Felton.

Judge to review surveillance video in Appling gun case

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 30:  Keith Appling #11 of the Michigan State Spartans reacts against the Connecticut Huskies during the East Regional Final of the 2014 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Madison Square Garden on March 30, 2014 in New York City.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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DEARBORN, Mich. (AP) A Michigan judge will review surveillance footage from the night former Michigan State basketball player Keith Appling was arrested outside a strip club on weapons and drug charges.

Appling’s defense attorney presented the footage at Friday’s preliminary examination. It includes security videos from the Pantheon Club parking lot and video from police dashboard cameras.

The hearing was adjourned until Aug. 5 to allow Judge William Hultgren time to review the footage.

The 24-year-old Appling played for the Spartans from 2010-2014 and had two 10-day contracts with the Orlando Magic this season.

He was arrested in May after two guns and suspected marijuana were found in a vehicle he was in.

Appling also faces a trial in Detroit where he was charged in June with carrying a concealed weapon.

Arkansas hoping for more backcourt depth and stronger press in 2016-17

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 27: Dusty Hannahs #3 of the Arkansas Razorbacks drives to the basket against Michael Humphrey #10 of the Stanford Cardinal  at Barclays Center on November 27, 2015 in Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
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Arkansas is coming off of a disappointing 16-16 season in which they missed the postseason.

The Razorbacks lost two key guards in Anthlon Bell and Jabril Durham — who both exhausted their eligibility — but they’re hoping a couple of additions will bolster the depth of their backcourt and make their trademark press stronger.

In a story from Tom Murphy of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the Razorbacks are excited about the possibilities of their new backcourt.

Although Arkansas lost two talented seniors and a transfer in Jimmy Whitt, they return Dusty Hannahs, Manny Watkins and Anton Beard while also getting two of the best junior college guards in the country. Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon come in highly touted for next season and both junior college guards garnered a lot of praise from their play last season.

With Arkansas also bringing in some freshman guards like C.J. Jones and RJ Glasper, head coach Mike Anderson is hoping to have enough bodies to play fast and use his press. The team appears to be optimistic as well.

“I think we’ll have a lot more toughness at the guard position, and depth,” Watkins said to Murphy. “We’ve got a lot of guys. When we’re pressing and stuff, we’ve got bodies we can bring in.”

Arkansas also returns an SEC Player of the Year candidate in big man Moses Kingsley and they could be an intriguing team to track this season if Barford and Macon are as good as advertised. They’ll certainly have more bodies to throw at opposing guards and that should help Arkansas play faster than they did last season.