Getty Images

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

2 Comments
source: Getty Images
Getty Images

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.

————————————————————————–

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.

Player of the Week: J.J. Frazier, Georgia

KANSAS CITY, MO - NOVEMBER 21:  J.J. Frazier #30 of the Georgia Bulldogs drives toward the basket as Yuta Watanabe #12 of the George Washington Colonials defends during the CBE Hall of Fame Classic game at the Sprint Center on November 21, 2016 in Kansas City, Missouri.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Leave a comment

J.J. Frazier deserves more credit and more attention than he has gotten this season, and there’s no better time to give it to him than this week.

In two games — two wins that keep Georgia’s minuscule hopes of getting an at-large bid alive — Frazier averaged 28.5 points and 4.5 assists, leading the Bulldogs to wins at Alabama and over LSU at home despite the fact that they are playing without Yante Maten, who sprained his knee in last Saturday’s game against Kentucky.

Frazier, by the way, had 36 points in that game against the Wildcats.

All told, he’s gone for at least 28 points in four of his last five games and has spent the better part of February as arguably the best guard in the SEC. Yes, that includes Malik Monk.

The unfortunate part of this is that the J.J. Frazier takeover happened too late. The Bulldogs are likely going to end up on the wrong side of the bubble because they have six losses in league play by six points or less or in overtime. They lost at Florida in OT. They lost at Kentucky in OT. They lost to Kentucky at home by five. They lost to South Carolina twice by a combined eight points. They lost at Texas A&M because the clock stopped running on the final possession, meaning that they didn’t get their final shot off in time despite the fact that there were 5.6 seconds listed on the clock when the shot was taken.

It’s been brutal.

The least we can do is give the kid his shine.

RELATED: Player of the Week | Team of the Week | Takeaways | Top 25

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

THEY WERE GOOD, TOO

  • Bam Adebayo, Kentucky: Adebayo is starting to play his best basketball of the season. It started with a 22-point, 15-rebound performance in a win at Missouri on That was followed up by the 18 points and 15 boards he put on Florida, damn-near finishing with a first half double-double that kept Florida from being able to open a lead Kentucky couldn’t bounce-back from.
  • Eric Mika and Elijah Bryant, BYU: The best performance from a Cougar that we saw this week was the 29 points and 11 boards that Mika had when BYU won at No. 1 Gonzaga and ended their undefeated season. But Bryant, who had 14 points in that win, also went for 39 points during the week as BYU beat Portland.
  • Justin Jackson, UNC: Jackson seems to have taken control of the race for ACC Player of the Year thanks for the 21 points he scored in UNC’s emphatic win over Louisville on Wednesday. He followed that up with 23 points in a win at Pitt.
  • Monte’ Morris, Iowa State: Morris had 23 points and six assists in an overtime win at Texas Tech on Monday night, following that up with 17 points and seven assists as the Cyclones picked off No. 9 Baylor in Hilton Coliseum on Saturday. They’ve now won five straight games.
  • Bruce Brown, Miami: The Hurricanes scored 109 total points in wins at Virginia  (in overtime!) and over Duke at home this week, and Brown had 39 of them, scoring a team-high 14 points against the Wahoos before popping off for 25 against the Blue Devils.

College Basketball Talk Top 25: Kansas, North Carolina vault past Gonzaga, Villanova

AUSTIN, TX - FEBRUARY 25: Frank Mason III #0 of the Kansas Jayhawks drives around Andrew Jones #1 of the Texas Longhorns at the Frank Erwin Center on February 25, 2017 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Chris Covatta/Getty Images)
Chris Covatta/Getty Images
Leave a comment

With Gonzaga taking their first loss of the season on Saturday night, it’s time for a reshuffle at the top of the top 25 standings.

We went with Kansas in the top spot, although I’m not sure if they’re actually the best team in the country.

I think North Carolina may be more complete, and while the Jayhawks have some serious front court depth concerns, if you were to give me the choice of a top seven vs. top seven, I would probably pick Kansas.

Anyway, here is the rest of this week’s top 25:

1. Kansas (26-3, Last Week: No. 3)
2. North Carolina (25-5, 6)
3. Gonzaga (29-1, 1)
4. Villanova (27-3, 2)
5. Oregon (26-4, 5)
6. UCLA (26-3, 8)
7. Louisville (23-6, 4)
8. Arizona (26-4, 7)
9. Kentucky (24-5, 11)
10. West Virginia (23-6, 10)
11. Baylor (23-6, 9)
12. Butler (23-6, 24)
13. Duke (22-7, 12)
14. Florida (23-6, 14)
15. SMU (25-4, 17)
16. Purdue (23-6, 13)
17. Notre Dame (22-7, 18)
18. Saint Mary’s (26-3, 19)
19. Florida State (23-6, 20)
20. Iowa State (19-9, 21)
21. Cincinnati (25-4, 16)
22. Wisconsin (22-7, 15)
23. Wichita State (27-4, 25)
24. Oklahoma State (20-9, UR)
25. Miami (20-9, UR)

DROPPED OUT: No. 22 Virginia, No. 23 Northwester
NEW ADDITIONS: No. 24 Oklahoma State, No. 25 Miami

RELATED: Player of the Week | Team of the Week | Takeaways | Top 25

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

Before he won an Academy Award, Mahershala Ali played at Saint Mary’s

HOLLYWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 26:  Actor Mahershala Ali accepts Best Supporting Actor for 'Moonlight' onstage during the 89th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on February 26, 2017 in Hollywood, California.  (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Mahershala Ali won an Oscar for best supporting actor for his role in the film ‘Moonlight’ on Sunday night.

How does that tie into college basketball?

It’s simple: Ali played college basketball for four years at Saint Mary’s, from 1992-1996.

Now, this was before Saint Mary’s turned into the Saint Mary’s that Randy Bennett has built. At the time, Ernie Kent was the program’s head coach, and the teams that Ali — whose used his given last name of Gilmore at the time, although he was already using the shortened version of his first name, Mahershalalhashbaz — played on weren’t really all that good. They finished under .500 in the WCC three of the four season, finding a way to finish in a tie for second place in his junior year.

As a senior, Ali averaged 7.0 points for the Gaels.

This would probably make Ali the most famous player that Kent has ever coached. He’s more famous than Aaron Brooks, who had about two good NBA seasons, and he’s definitely more famous than Luke Ridnour, who is best known either for getting traded four times in a week or being name-dropped in a song by the rapper Wale, who bragged about being able to turn ‘Ducks into Bucks [like] Luke Ridnour.’

 

VIDEO: Tom Izzo’s touching senior day tribute to Eron Harris

EAST LANSING, MI - FEBRUARY 26: Eron Harris #14 of the Michigan State Spartans kisses the midcourt logo on senior day during the second half of the college basketball game against the Wisconsin Badgers at the Breslin Center on February 26, 2017 in East Lansing, Michigan. (Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)
Rey Del Rio/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Eron Harris suffered a career-ending knee injury in a game at Purdue earlier this month, meaning that he would not be able to take the floor for his Senior Day.

Tom Izzo made sure to rectify that, as he called a timeout with just 12 seconds left in Michigan State’s win over No. 16 Wisconsin on Sunday, giving Harris a chance to go out to the center of the court, get a standing ovation and give the Spartan logo a smooch.

He was also greeted by the Wisconsin team. All around great moment:

Nick Ward-led Michigan State beats No. 16 Wisconsin 84-74

EAST LANSING, MI - FEBRUARY 26: Nick Ward #44 of the Michigan State Spartans celebrates during a game against the Wisconsin Badgers in the second half at the Breslin Center on February 26, 2017 in East Lansing, Michigan. (Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)
Rey Del Rio/Getty Images
Leave a comment

EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) Nick Ward had 22 points and nine rebounds, Miles Bridges had 17 points and Matt McQuaid added a season-high 15 to help Michigan State beat No. 16 Wisconsin 84-74 on Sunday.

The Spartans (18-11, 10-6 Big Ten) have won six of their last eight games, moving them into a third-place tie in the conference and perhaps sealing their spot in a 20th straight NCAA Tournament.

The Badgers (22-7, 11-5) have lost four of five and lost a chance to pull into a first-place tie with No. 14 Purdue.

Wisconsin’s Nigel Hayes scored 22 points, Bronson Koenig had 17 and Zak Showalter added 15. Ethan Happ fouled out with eight points, more than six points below his average for the Badgers.

Michigan State went on an 11-1 run midway through the second half, building a 12-point lead that it was able to maintain unlike a big lead in the first half.

In the first half, the Spartans led 36-23 only to allow the Badgers to come back with a 15-4 run to pull within a point at halftime.

Michigan State’s Cassius Winston had 10 points and eight assists and Joshua Langford had nine points.

In the last game of the season at Breslin Center, senior guard Eron Harris checked in late in the game a little more than a week after he had a season-ending knee injury. Harris, with a brace on his right knee, went to center court and kissed the Spartan logo to follow a senior tradition Shawn Respert started in 1995.

BIG PICTURE

Wisconsin: The Badgers have been shooting poorly and it is catching up with them. They were held to 43.1 percent shooting against Michigan State, a ninth straight game of connecting on 44 percent or fewer of their shots. They made 13 of 25 free throws at Michigan State after shooting 67 and 57 percent from the line the previous two games.

Michigan State: The Spartans are surging at the right time and are gaining confidence perhaps allowing them to position themselves for better seeding at the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments.

POLL IMPLICATONS

With Wisconsin’s losses at Michigan State and Ohio State, the Badgers will likely plummet from No. 16 in The Associated Press poll on Monday.

UP NEXT

Wisconsin: The Badgers end the regular season at home, hosting Iowa on Thursday night and Minnesota on Sunday.

Michigan State: The Spartans close on the road, playing Illinois on Wednesday night and No. 24 Maryland on Saturday.

More AP college basketball at http://collegebasketball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25