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.

Indiana upsets No. 4 Iowa, moves into first-place tie in Big Ten

Indiana's Troy Williams (5) and Collin Hartman (30) celebrate after Williams made a shot and was fouled during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Iowa, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016, in Bloomington, Ind. Indiana won 85-78. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
(AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Leave a comment

Indiana picked off the No. 4 team in the country on Thursday night, beating Iowa in Assembly Hall, 85-78.

It goes without saying that this was a huge win for the Hoosiers. They had just a single top 50 win on their résumé entering the night. They were on the right side of the bubble entering the day, but for a team that just moved into a tie for first place in the Big Ten with the win, they were no where near as safe as you might think.

You read that right.

Indiana is not exactly safe when it comes to their NCAA tournament standing despite, on February 11th, being tied with Iowa and Maryland for first place in the Big Ten.

So yes, adding a top ten win to that profile is incredibly significant.

Having a realistic shot at winning the Big Ten regular season title is incredibly significant.

But more than anything, how this win came to be matters more than anything.

For starters, it came on a night where Yogi Ferrell was off. He hit his first shot and his last shot of the night, but missed all ten field goal attempts in between. He finished with just one assist compared to two turnovers and four fouls. He was bad. And it didn’t matter. For a team that relies as heavily upon a player as Indiana relies upon Yogi, that’s significant.

As is the fact that the Hoosiers were able to win despite blowing a 16-point lead. Remember, Indiana had lost to Penn State on Saturday. Following that up by blowing a huge lead at home in the most important game of the season is the kind of thing that can obliterate a team’s confidence, and with a brutal stretch run — at Michigan State, Nebraska, Purdue, at Illinois, at Iowa, Maryland — getting into a funk now would be a season-killer.

Six Hoosiers scored at least nine points, led by 14 from Ferrell, while it was the play of Thomas Bryant and Troy Williams, grabbing 10 of Indiana’s 19 offensive rebounds, that really made the difference; the Hoosiers scored 26 second-chance points.

As far as Iowa is concerned, the only real problem coming from this loss was their inability to keep Indiana off of the offensive glass. The Hoosiers had 12 offensive rebounds in the first 20 minutes. Iowa had 11 total rebounds. On the season, the Hawkeyes are 225th nationally in defensive rebounding percentage. Indiana gets to the offensive glass as well as anyone, but Fran McCaffery is not going to be happy about their numbers — or effort — when he watches this film.

LATE NIGHT SNACKS: Indiana, California pick up important home wins

Indiana's Collin Hartman (30) and Yogi Ferrell (11) celebrate late in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Iowa, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016, in Bloomington, Ind. Indiana won 85-78. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
AP Photo/Darron Cummings
Leave a comment

GAME OF THE NIGHT: Indiana 85, No. 4 Iowa 78

There’s now a three-way tie atop the Big Ten standings, as the Hoosiers outlasted the Hawkeyes in Bloomington. Yogi Ferrell led five Indiana players in double figures with 14 points, and Tom Crean’s team won this one in large part due to their rebounding (19 offensive rebounds) and accuracy from the foul line. Indiana made 18 of its 21 attempts from the charity stripe, with Iowa going a pedestrian 13-for-23. Jarrod Uthoff scored 24 points and Mike Gesell 17, but those missed opportunities from the foul line proved costly for Fran McCaffery’s team.

IMPORTANT OUTCOMES

California 83, No. 11 Oregon 63: Jabari Bird scored 24 points to lead the way offensively as Cal moved to 15-0 at Haas Pavilion this season. Oregon simply did not have any answers for the Golden Bears, who shot nearly 56 percent from the field and racked up 27 second-chance points and 46 points in the paint. As a result the top seven teams in the Pac-12 are separated by a total of two games. So how does Cal go about ensuring that they don’t have to sweat out Selection Sunday? By doing something that’s proven to be far easier said than done for them this season.

Temple 63, UConn 58: With six minutes remaining UConn held a 12-point lead and appeared poised to pick up a win in Philadelphia. Things didn’t play out that way however, as Temple closed the game on a 21-4 run to pick up a much-needed win for their NCAA tournament hopes and move to 9-3 in the American. Quenton DeCosey scored 23 points and Daniel Dingle 15 for the Owls, who are now 6-0 on the season against the other top teams in the American (UConn, Cincinnati, SMU and Tulsa).

Syracuse 85, Florida State 72: The Orange opened the second half on a 13-1 run, grabbing control of a key game between teams looking to add quality wins to their NCAA tournament résumés. Michael Gbinije scored 22 points and grabbed eight rebounds, and Malachi Richardson added 17, six board, five assists and three steals for the Orange. Devon Bookert led four Seminoles in double figures with 15 points, but FSU shot just 8-for-26 from three against the Syracuse zone.

STARRED

Rokas Gustys, Hofstra: Gustys racked up 25 points and 15 rebounds in Hofstra’s 86-80 win at William & Mary.

Matt Harris, UMass-Lowell: Harris scored 33 points, shooting 10-for-15 from the field, in the RiverHawks’ 108-95 overtime win at Maine.

Jabari Bird, California: Bird scored 24 points, shooting 9-for-14 from the field, in the Golden Bears’ blowout win over No. 11 Oregon.

Nick Emery, BYU: Emery scored 37 points in the Cougars’ 114-89 win at San Francisco, shooting 10-for-12 from three.

STRUGGLED

Chattanooga: The Mocs committed 26 turnovers in their 67-61 loss at Western Carolina.

James McGee, Southern Utah: McGee shot 2-for-10 from the field, scoring six points in the Thunderbirds’ 86-53 loss at Montana.

OTHER NOTABLE RESULTS

  • UMass knocked off VCU 69-63 in Amherst, dropping the Rams a game behind Dayton in the Atlantic 10 standings.
  • Matt Tiby accounted for 24 points and 11 rebounds and Jordan Johnson added 14 points and ten assists as Milwaukee won 93-85 at Oakland.
  • James Madison picked up an important 56-52 win at Charleston, but leading scorer Ron Curry left the game with a knee injury. His status moving forward will be of great importance to the Dukes.
  • Jacksonville fell short in its quest to grab sole possession of first in the A-Sun, as they lost 93-92 at Lipscomb.
  • High Point won at Coastal Carolina, beating the Chanticleers 68-67. Adam Weary led a balanced offensive effort for the Panthers with 13 points.
  • Stony Brook extended its win streak to 17 straight games with a 75-52 win at UMBC. Jameel Warney finished the game with 22 points and seven rebounds.
  • Western Carolina handed Chattanooga its second loss in SoCon play, beating the Mocs 67-61. Torrior Brummitt finished with 16 points and ten rebounds for the Catamounts.
  • Charlotte scored 66 second half points in a 102-73 win over Rice. Mark Price’s 49ers shot especially well from three, connecting on 17 of their 29 attempts.
  • There’a a two-way tie atop the Northeast Conference, as both Saint Francis (PA) and Fairleigh Dickinson picked up wins Thursday night. Wagner, which entered the night tied for first, lost at LIU Brooklyn 82-69.
  • UAB won for the 18th time in their last 19 games but they had to work hard for it, beating Southern Miss 80-77 in double overtime. Chris Cokley accounted for 17 points and 13 rebounds off the bench for the Blazers.
  • Montana State shot an incredible 25-for-43 from beyond the arc in a 101-58 win over Northern Arizona.
  • Montana (10-2) and Weber State (9-2) remain atop the Big Sky standings, as both picked up comfortable home wins Thursday night. While the Grizzlies blew out Southern Utah 86-53, Weber State beat Sacramento State 63-50.