NEW YORK — Kevin Ollie has run out of excuses.
The UConn head coach and the handpicked successor to Jim Calhoun, a Hall of Famer and the man that put Storrs, Conn., on the college basketball map, is not even four years removed from winning a national title in just his second season as a head coach and he’s damn near managed to run the UConn program into the ground.
UConn has missed two out of the last three NCAA tournaments, with last year being the low-water mark. The Huskies finished below-.500 for the first time since Jim Calhoun’s first season in Storrs all the way back in 1986-87, and there’s no guarantee that this season is going to finish any better. The Huskies lost to Arkansas by 35 points. They needed overtime to get past Columbia at home. Monmouth, too. And on Tuesday, UConn fell to a mediocre – by their standards – Syracuse team in the Jimmy V Classic in a game where the final score was flattering.
The Huskies trailed by as many as 17 points. They went into halftime down by 11 — “A horrible disappointment,” according to Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim, because they “should have been up 20, 22, 23 points.” — and never got closer than seven points in the second half before losing, 72-63.
In the past, when Ollie’s missed out on the NCAA tournament, there have been justifiable reasons why. In 2013, UConn was not eligible. In 2015, the program was replacing four starters — including Shabazz Napier — from a team that won the national title. Last season, two of the program’s top three players — Terry Larrier and Alterique Gilbert — suffered season-ending injuries in the first weeks of the season.
There are no excuses this season.
Only reasons, many of which are self-inflicted.
We can start with the lack of talent and experience along UConn’s front line. That’s what happens when three former four-star recruits transfer out of the program in the offseason. Would things be different if Steven Enoch (now at Louisville), Juwan Durham (Notre Dame) and Vance Jackson (New Mexico) had not left the program?
At the very least, the Huskies would not be relying on three-star freshmen, JuCo transfers and former Cornell big men to carry the water for them in the paint.
Maybe there’s something to be said for Gilbert’s shoulder continuing to be an issue. He has missed the last three games after playing just 17 minutes in the loss to Arkansas, but if one player is the difference between UConn, a program that has won two national titles since the Green Bay Packers last won a Super Bowl, winning and losing by 35 points to an Arkansas team that lost by 26 points to Houston, we have a problem.
And then there is the issue of coaching.
“It was like we never, you know, seen a zone before,” Ollie told reporters after Tuesday’s loss, which is not exactly high-praise coming from the man in charge of ensuring that his team sees a zone before facing Syracuse.
What about this: A member of a coaching staff that has scouted UConn this season told me that, “in terms of the actions they run and the game plan, probably the simplest scout I’ve seen.” The numbers back it up. UConn currently ranks 128th in offensive efficiency, which is actually up from 154th last season. The only UConn team in the history of KenPom to finish worse was the 2007 team, when Calhoun had to replace his entire roster.
It’s too early to pen a “Fire Kevin Ollie” column, and yes, I know that comes after I recorded this podcast.
UConn still has a chance to turn this thing around, although it won’t be easy. They play at Arizona in two weeks. Two days later, they’re at Auburn. A week after that, AAC play starts, and they still have a random January game against Villanova tucked away.
There will be plenty of chances for UConn and Ollie to prove that the last two weeks were a hiccup in a season returning the program to glory.
It also means there will be plenty of chances for the Huskies, who KenPom has as a favorite in just eight of their remaining 22 games, to get embarrassed.
If the latter occurs, Ollie will no longer be able to look anywhere other than the mirror.
Because the excuses are gone.
Reasons are all that are left.