College Basketball Nation: Kevin Ollie

Editor's note: During the next five weeks, we will reveal the top 50 coaches in college basketball, as decided by our ESPN Forecast panel. Today we unveil No. 10: Connecticut's Kevin Ollie. On Tuesday, we release No. 9.

Former Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun once said that his former player turned Huskies head coach Kevin Ollie uses more motivational phrases "than almost any other guy I’ve ever been around in my life."

Ollie has attached those sayings all over the UConn locker room at their on-campus court in Gampel Pavilion. But the Huskies probably don't need any reminders; Ollie is quick to recite new phrases from his virtual unlimited mental Rolodex.

"I just listen to a lot of inspirational people, you hear things that strike a chord with you," Ollie told ESPN.com in November, when asked about his many quotables.

Some are original thoughts, others are phrases he's come across and posted, but the Yogi Berra of college basketball always gets his point across. Here's the top-10 list of Ollie-isms:

[+] EnlargeKevin Ollie
AP Photo/David J. PhillipKevin Ollie's crafty inspirational sayings have helped vault UConn to the top of the college basketball world.
10. UConn basketball, 10 toes in.

When Ollie took over the program armed with only a seven-month contract and an NCAA postseason ban, his first step was to make sure his players were all-in.

"We were banned from the NCAA tournament, but we weren't banned from loving each other, we weren't banned from making each other better," said Ollie, who added: "They really didn't have a choice in the matter. I was going to play the guys who were playing hard. We were just trying to teach these kids a life lesson. A lot of people give up in the face of adversity."

9. Greatness is never on discount. Success is never on sale.

Ollie repeatedly tells his players that they aren't going to take any shortcuts. They will take the stairs instead of the escalators and enjoy the process of building a foundation. A bigger success results only when the small details are taken care of.

"When you're building a wall, you don’t set out to say, 'I'm building this beautiful wall,'" Ollie said. "You put one brick down as perfectly as you can do it."

8. "I want my guys to coach me."

Ollie loves the fact that some of his players call him "K.O." and not "coach." He wants the kind of relationship that once they leave the program, he'll be the one getting that first call about announcements on engagements, buying a first home and other life milestones.

"I'm not the coach and the dictator and what I say goes; I don't coach out of fear," Ollie said. "If you coach out of fear you're just going to get [a little bit] out of guys, but if you coach and you have a loving relationship, those guys will run through the wall for you."

7. Be careful what you're feeding.

When Ollie took over for Calhoun, he admittedly had some doubts about succeeding the Hall of Famer and the architecture of the program. But that's not where his focus rested.

"The most important thing in life: You don’t concentrate, you don’t meditate on your doubts," Ollie said. "You meditate on the different things that are good and going to inspire you to be great. That’s what I did. What are you doing, you feeding that fear or you feeding the good side?"

6. Greatness begins when selfishness ends.

Selfishness was a problem on Calhoun's final team in 2011-12. Despite having big talent, the Huskies were a big disappointment, failing to win a game in the NCAA tournament. Ollie sought to root out selfishness from the start.

"I learned a lot from [Calhoun] those two years [as an assistant coach]," Ollie said. "You can have a small fire, but you can’t let it turn into an inferno."

5. Be phenomenal or be forgotten.

It's Ollie's way of saying: Make an impact -- however big or small -- on those around you. It has nothing to do with scoring a lot of points or winning a lot of titles.

"If you're going to measure me as a coach, don't measure me with X's and O's and wins and losses; measure me with how my guys leave the program and how much better people they are," he said. "If I can do that I've done a great job."

4. "Faith it 'til you make it."

Ollie pointed to his 13-year professional career that involved endless 10-day contracts and 11 different teams. He was used to having the odds against him, but said, "That's kind of how I like it," and he never stopped believing.

"Some people say, 'Fake it to make it.' I say, 'Faith it to make it,'" Ollie said. "I'm going to have to faith it. Sometimes I don't understand it, I don't know the outcome, but I believe in the dark. And I tell these guys they're going to have to have blind trust."

3. The three E’s.

In one of his life lessons not just meant for basketball, Ollie said you have to have "effort, energy, enthusiasm."

"If you’ve got that in life, you’re going to be good," he said. "I might fail, but I'm all right. I'm going to fail until I succeed. I'm never going to stop."

2. "Take care of your 24."

Ollie said everyone has the same opportunity to make his day successful.

"You have 24 hours to do something magical each and every day," Ollie said. "I don’t care if you're black, blue, green, rich or poor -- you've got 24 hours. What you do with your 24 hours is going to dictate how successful you are in life."

1. "I’m not chasing national championships, national championships are going to chase us."

Reread Ollie's quote 100 times and it still might not make sense to you. But considering that he's 1-for-1 in NCAA tournament appearances and national championships makes it hit home a bit. Maybe Ollie knows what he's talking about after all.

3-point shot: Locking down coaches

May, 20, 2014
May 20
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Andy Katz talks about the American’s scheduling plans, Chris Mack’s extension at Xavier, and why UConn had to step up and lock down Kevin Ollie.

What would it take? Kevin Ollie

May, 20, 2014
May 20
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Editor’s note: Some coaches’ names always seem to come up for other jobs. But what would it take for them to actually leave? This week, we’ll look at the names most often mentioned. Today, we look at UConn’s Kevin Ollie.

Ollie played for Jim Calhoun at UConn from 1991 to '95. He met his wife in Storrs, Conn. And despite having many offers to begin his coaching career in the NBA, he returned to UConn as an assistant coach in 2010. Ollie, a Los Angeles native, loves being the caretaker of his alma mater, especially being Calhoun’s hand-picked successor. UConn might not advertise it much, but it’s important for the program to stay within the family. It’s not a coincidence that all of Ollie’s coaching staff played for the Huskies.

[+] EnlargeKevin Ollie
John Moore/Getty ImagesKevin Ollie's experience and stature among NBA teams will continue to make him a sought-after coaching candidate.
It’s kind of silly now to think that Ollie’s original contract was signed for a seven-month trial period, but at the time he was an assistant coach with no experience who had just returned to the college game and was being asked to replace the architect of UConn basketball. From his first game, an upset of Michigan State in Germany, Ollie proved to be up to the challenge. Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright couldn’t coexist in the backcourt with each other in Calhoun’s final season, but one of Ollie’s first big accomplishments was making them realize they weren’t competing with each other. It goes to show why Ollie is wanted as a head coach. He knows how to relate to and motivate his players. The Huskies were banned from the 2013 postseason due to low APR scores -- through no fault of his own -- but Ollie led them to a 20-10 season despite being unable to play for a championship.

And of course his second year was even better. Ollie guided an unheralded No. 7 seed to the Huskies’ fourth national championship. He's just as proud that when the APR results were released last week, Ollie’s first season as head coach produced a perfect score.

What would it take?

The Cleveland Cavaliers made inquiries. The Los Angeles Lakers made overtures. In both cases, Ollie resisted the urge to jump to the league where he spent 13 seasons playing for 11 different teams. It’s probably safe to say that Ollie would not leave UConn for another college program. But the NBA? That could be a matter of timing. At just 41 years old, Ollie is in no rush. He could be waiting for his 13-year-old daughter Cheyenne to go through high school before being open to coaching in the league. Ollie’s new contract at UConn, which will reportedly be finalized on Wednesday, changes little on the surface. It might end speculation for this offseason, but NBA teams will continue to seek his services and his name will continue to be floated this time next season when openings arise. The contract may make a bigger difference from Ollie’s perspective. It signifies the university reaffirming its commitment to him. UConn was proactive during his first season in tearing up the seven-month contract and presenting a five-year deal before the Huskies finished nonconference play in December 2012. ESPN.com’s Andy Katz reported that Ollie was first approached about a new contract this year after the Huskies beat Iowa State in the Sweet 16 in March.

Possibilities: Ollie has a Calhoun-like tenure in Storrs. Or Ollie has the itch to coach in the NBA and is just waiting for the right opening.

3-point shot: UConn's historic run

April, 8, 2014
Apr 8
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Andy Katz discusses the historic nature of UConn's national championship, what it means for the American Athletic Conference and the next step for Kentucky's pro prospects.

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Khalid El-Amin, the Connecticut point guard whose college career ended 14 years ago, sprinted over to former coach Jim Calhoun and gave him a bear hug in the victor’s locker room.

Ray Allen, who started checking the Miami Heat’s schedule a couple of weeks ago to see if he could attend the championship game, walked around UConn’s locker room congratulating the newest Huskies to be crowned NCAA champions.

So did Richard Hamilton, another former UConn star, who played 14 NBA seasons.

[+] EnlargeJim Calhoun
AP Photo/Eric GayFormer UConn coach Jim Calhoun had to recruit Kevin Ollie to his staff as Ollie weighed a coaching offer from the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Calhoun, the man who built this program, sat in a quiet corner of the Huskies’ locker room, beaming proudly as he talked about Kevin Ollie and his hand-picked protege’s ability to maintain the program’s lofty standard.

UConn beat Kentucky 60-54 on Monday night at AT&T Stadium to win its fourth national championship since 1999.

No program has won more in that span.

“No matter who you are and what you are, you always want an affirmation of things,” Calhoun said. “We have had a great last 25 years. We’re probably one of the top five winningest programs, and that’s important.

“But teams like North Carolina, Indiana and Kentucky have been incredible for 50 years. We want to keep that thing going. I never wanted our program to be about one player, one team or one coach.

“That’s what Dean Smith taught me when I was young coach at Northeastern.”

Obviously, Calhoun took the lesson to heart.

Hamilton starred on the 1999 championship team. Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon led the Huskies to their 2004 title and Kemba Walker starred on the 2011 team.

This season’s team belong to Shabazz Napier, who was sensational in the title game with 22 points, six rebounds, three steals and three assists.

Any program can have a good run when blessed with a special talent. But the best programs keep their rosters stocked with players capable of leading them to championships.

Such is the case at UConn, where they expect to compete for the championship every season.

“Somebody told me we were Cinderellas, and I was like, 'No, we're UConn,'" Ollie said. “I mean this is what we do. We are born for this. We’re bred to cut down nets. We’re not chasing championships, championships are chasing us.

“We’ve got four now and Coach Calhoun started a tradition and my whole coaching staff is from UConn. We’ve all been through the same things. We love this university. It’s always family first with us and they kept believing.”

Ollie’s attitude is why Calhoun wanted his former player to replace him when he retired two years ago.

Ollie played point guard for the Huskies from 1992-95, but he always returned to the community during the NBA offseason, so he has been connected to the program for more than 20 years.

Ollie can communicate with Cliff Robinson, UConn’s first great player under Calhoun, and Walker because he was an assistant coach on 2011 team. Ollie understands what it means to be a Husky, and Calhoun knew Ollie would adhere to the ideals and standards that he established when he arrived before the 1986 season.

Before he accepted the Huskies' job, Ollie weighed an offer from the Oklahoma City Thunder. He could either be the assistant director of pro personnel or Scott Brooks’ assistant coach.

“I had to recruit him again,” Calhoun said. “I told him I’d already recruited him from Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles, so I shouldn’t have to recruit him again.”

But Calhoun did, and once again, Calhoun persuaded Ollie to come to UConn.

“The transition worried me,” Calhoun said. “Kevin kept the things that are important to UConn and the things important to Kevin Ollie and made it work.”

As the final seconds ticked off the clock, Ollie said he thought about his mentor.

He thought about the trust Calhoun bestowed on him to maintain the program. And he thought about the lessons Calhoun taught him about being a man and a father.

“He’s right there beside me,” Ollie said. “I told you, I’m not filling his shoes. I can’t fill his shoes.

“He just a great resource for me -- to have a person that loves me and believed in me when a lot of people didn’t. A lot of people questioned me about getting this job; he never did.”

It’s why both men were smiling broadly at the end of the night.

Video: Kevin Ollie conversation

April, 7, 2014
Apr 7
4:00
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UConn coach Kevin Ollie reflects on his team's run through the tournament, his relationship with Jim Calhoun and the culture of his program.

Video: What Ollie, Calipari need to prove

April, 7, 2014
Apr 7
11:00
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Myron Medcalf and Eamonn Brennan discuss what they believe UConn coach Kevin Ollie and Kentucky coach John Calipari are looking to prove in the national championship game on Monday night.

UConn, UK meet in unlikely title game

April, 6, 2014
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For the first time ever, a 7-seed and 8-seed will meet in the national championship. It’s the highest combined seed total in a title game.

The Connecticut Huskies are the first 7-seed ever to reach the national championship.

The Kentucky Wildcats are the third 8-seed since the tournament expanded in 1985 to reach the title game (2011 Butler, 1985 Villanova).

Villanova is the only 7-seed or lower to win the national championship.

CONNECTICUT
UConn defeated the Florida Gators to reach its fourth national championship, all since 1999.

UConn was led by DeAndre Daniels, who had 20 points and 10 rebounds. He’s the first player with at least 20 points and 10 rebounds in a national semifinal win since Syracuse’s Carmelo Anthony in 2003.

The loss was Florida’s second against UConn this season. The Gators are 0-2 against UConn and 36-1 against everyone else.

UConn is now 7-1 in Final Four games, the best win percentage for any team with at least three games in the Final Four.

Only one of UConn’s 14 made field goals in the second half came outside the paint.

Florida was outscored 9-0 in transition in the second half. The Gators didn’t have a single transition opportunity in the second half.

Florida had just three assists, the fewest by any team in a Final Four game since assists became official in 1983-84.

Scottie Wilbekin struggled when he was guarded by UConn’s starting backcourt. He was 0-for-5 on field goals when guarded by Ryan Boatright and turned it over on three of four plays when guarded by Shabazz Napier.

The Huskies were at their best with Terrence Samuel on the court. In 18 minutes with Samuel on the court, they outscored Florida by 15 points and had 11 more points than they had in 22 minutes with Samuel on the bench.

Kevin Ollie is the first coach to reach the national championship within his first two seasons as a Division I head coach since Indiana’s Mike Davis in 2002.

KENTUCKY
Kentucky defeated Wisconsin to reach its 12th national championship, tied with UCLA for the most all time (not including UCLA’s vacated appearance in 1980).

Kentucky freshman Aaron Harrison made a game-winning 3-pointer with 5.7 seconds left, his third game-winning shot in the final minute in this NCAA tournament.

Aaron Harrison is 3-for-3 on game-tying and go-ahead 3-pointers in the final minute in the NCAA tournament after having zero such attempts in the regular season.

The Wildcats had 66 points from their freshmen, the most by a team’s freshmen in a Final Four game (Michigan had 61 in 1992).

John Calipari is now 18-2 in the NCAA tournament as Kentucky head coach.

Video: UConn coach Kevin Ollie

April, 3, 2014
Apr 3
5:30
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Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie discusses his team's path to the Final Four and the keys to the upcoming matchup against Florida.

Video: Which Final Four coach is best?

April, 3, 2014
Apr 3
9:45
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Bracket TV: Jeff Goodman and Dana O'Neil debate which of the Final Four coaches is the best.

3-point shot: Ollie's nemesis returns?

April, 3, 2014
Apr 3
8:40
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Andy Katz discusses the potential return of Kevin Ollie’s nemesis, a battle brewing in New York, and something you might not know about Bo Ryan.

3-point shot: Spartans' disappointing finish

March, 31, 2014
Mar 31
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Andy Katz discusses the disappointment on the Michigan State sideline, the impressive job done by UConn coach Kevin Ollie and the dangers of the hype that surrounded Kentucky early this season.


NEW YORK -- The seedings tell us Michigan State and Connecticut don’t belong here anymore.

But we know better than that, don’t we?

Michigan State versus UConn … just let that simmer for a moment.

This isn't a matchup of No. 4 and No. 7 seeds. It’s the college basketball equivalent of a heavyweight fight, making it only fitting that Madison Square Garden will serve as host.

[+] EnlargeMichigan State
Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY SportsAfter a tough regular season, Branden Dawson has been a big part of Michigan State's postseason run.
Just do the math. Seven Elite Eights since 1999 for the Huskies. Eight Elite Eights during that same span for the Spartans.

The fans of these two teams are spoiled rotten. And we will be, too, come Sunday afternoon.

“We understand when you get to an Elite Eight, you’re gonna play one of the best teams in the country. Michigan State is one of those guys,” UConn guard Shabazz Napier said Saturday. “Great guards, great big guys, great tradition, great coach and it’s gonna be definitely a dogfight.”

“We have got more experience inside. They have probably got a little more outside,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “I think for the most part, both of us got a decent amount of experience to be playing in an Elite Eight game, and I think that’s what should make it a great, great game.”

Both teams entered the season with lofty expectations, each residing in the Associated Press Top 25. Connecticut was ranked 18th and picked to finish second behind only Louisville in the inaugural year of the American Athletic Conference.

Michigan State was 16 spots higher -- just a sliver behind Kentucky in a virtual tie for preseason No. 1.

But it’s been a roller coaster of a season, for both teams. UConn opened 9-0 but then suffered back-to-back losses to Houston and SMU four weeks later and dropped out of the national rankings entirely. The Huskies finished tied for third in the AAC, but were embarrassed by Louisville in the teams’ regular-season finale 81-48.

Michigan State was 18-1 in late January, looking every bit as good as expected. But then the Spartans, thanks in part to several injuries, lost seven of their final 12 regular-season games -- including a stunning loss to Georgetown here at the Garden on the first day of February.

Seems like ancient history now.

Speaking of history, that’s been the theme in New York this week. After all, these are the first NCAA tournament games in 53 years at Madison Square Garden.

But two Michigan State players are trying to avoid making history Sunday. If the Spartans don’t beat UConn, seniors Keith Appling and Adreian Payne will become the first four-year players in Izzo’s 19-year tenure to fail to reach at least one Final Four.

“That’s the extra chip that we have on our shoulders,” Appling said. “So we’re just kind of embracing the moment.”

Izzo said it was something the team talked about early in the season. “I didn't bring it up as much in the last two months, because we had so many other things to deal with,” Izzo said. “Yet I'm starting to hear them talk about it, and I think it's a good thing.”

This isn't the last chance for junior forward Branden Dawson, but he’s certainly playing like it is. Dawson scored 20 just once in the first 35 games of the season, including missing nine games with a broken right hand after slamming it on a table during a film session. But he had 26 points and nine boards in the Spartans’ third-round win over Harvard, and followed that up with 24 and 10 against Virginia on Friday.

“It was definitely frustrating,” Dawson said, of all the criticism the team heard during that rough stretch. “A lot of people on campus, we went to go get something to eat, went to the stores, a lot of people were just asking us, ‘What's going on with the team?’ Some people said it was my fault.”

If Michigan State is playing with a chip on its shoulder, then Connecticut is playing with ... well, an even bigger chip. UConn was banned from postseason play one year ago, meaning the Huskies -- despite finishing 20-10 -- were home watching March Madness.

Actually, they didn't even do that. “I actually couldn't even watch the tournament last year,” guard Ryan Boatright said. “It was so painful.”

The program could have imploded -- after all, these players were being punished for the academic sins of their predecessors. Instead they stuck together, with eyes planted firmly on the following March.

[+] EnlargeShabazz Napier, Monte Morris
Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY SportsAfter sanctions kept UConn out of the NCAA Tournament last year, Shabazz Napier and the Huskies are enjoying their Elite Eight run.
“It gave us a lot of motivation. We wanted to be in that tournament, but we couldn't,” Napier said. “I felt like we had chances to either let it bring you down or motivate you, and I think we let it motivate us.”

“Just find positives in everything -- that’s one thing I've learned from Coach [Kevin] Ollie,” Boatright said. “Any negative, you try to find the positive.”

Ollie has done a fine job navigating this program through such a challenging period. But he’s still in just his second year, trying to replace Hall of Famer Jim Calhoun.

So far, so good -- but this is still uncharted territory. “Those are things I can’t control,” Ollie said, of the high expectations. “What I can control is our attitude, how we play together, are we playing with effort, are we playing with passion.

“I can't be Coach Calhoun," Ollie said. "But I can be Kevin Ollie. I can take some great life lessons I learned from Coach and build on them and just try to create my own."

So, let’s review. Two college basketball programs with a combined five national championships, and 15 Elite Eight appearances in the past 16 years -- and yet both teams still feel as though they have something to prove, at this late stage of March?

Sounds like the recipe for a classic -- a bout to remember, and worthy of the storied setting.

Now all that’s left is to ring the bell.



NEW YORK -- They call the NCAA tournament the Big Dance, and the Connecticut Huskies danced their way onto the Madison Square Garden floor Thursday.

It was a brand-new floor -- the NCAA installs its own court at each tournament site -- but everything else looked familiar to the Huskies, who played here twice earlier this season and 13 times in the past four years.

No wonder No. 7 seed UConn looked so comfortable as it prepared for its noon 50-minute open practice, with several players shimmying on the sidelines before the team was introduced.

[+] EnlargeShabazz Napier
Joe Murphy/Getty ImagesShabazz Napier and the Huskies believe they will have a home-court advantage Friday versus Iowa State.
“I told the guys, this came full circle,” Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie said. “I know we came down here and played in the 2K Classic and won that Classic. But to come down here this time, and our guys not able to play in the last Big East tournament that was here last year, it’s all full circle.”

It’s UConn’s 17th trip to the Sweet 16, but this one is extra special. The Huskies were banned from the NCAA tournament last season because of poor academic performance and ruled ineligible for the Big East tournament as well.

It’s also extra special because these will be the first NCAA tournament games at Madison Square Garden since 1961.

Star guard Shabazz Napier, one of several Huskies who elected to stay at UConn despite the postseason ban, admitted Thursday he couldn’t bring himself to watch a single game of the 2013 tourney.

A huge fishing fan, Napier consoled himself by watching shows such as "River Monsters" on Animal Planet instead. “I didn’t want to watch [the tournament] because I felt like if I did, I would be aggravated or annoyed,” he said.

Napier has been one of the best shows in college basketball this season. A likely first-team All-American, the 6-foot-1 senior leads Connecticut in scoring (17.8 PPG), rebounding (5.9 RPG), assists (4.9 APG) and steals (1.8 SPG), and he has a penchant for making plays when it counts.

He hit a game-winning buzzer-beater against Florida in early December, scored nine of his 24 points in overtime in UConn’s win over No. 10 seed St. Joseph’s to open this tournament, and followed that up with 25 points in a victory over second-seeded Villanova two days later.

Napier also scored 20 and 27 points in the Huskies' 2K Classic wins over Boston College and Indiana here back in November, and he believes his team has a definite advantage Friday night against No. 3 seed Iowa State, despite being the lower seed.

“The thing that would help us is our great fan base coming down and supporting us, like they always do,” Napier said. “When we are down and when we’re up, they are still cheering. They give us the support, they give us that sixth man that we need to push us forward.”

Teammate Ryan Boatright believes UConn’s familiarity with the Garden will be a big plus, too.

“It just feels like a second home to us,” Boatright said. “If you’ve never played here before, it’s definitely a different feeling -- the background, the rims ... the whole crowd is dark, just the court is lit up. Everything is different than playing in a regular college stadium.”

It is expected to be a heavily pro-Huskies crowd, with the Connecticut campus just 135 miles away. UConn has always drawn well at the Garden, making this historic ticket even hotter than it already would have been.

The Metro-North commuter railroad is adding an extra express train from New Haven, Conn., to Grand Central Terminal on Friday afternoon, and extra cars to other trains departing New Haven for New York as well (and vice versa at the end of the night).

As of late Thursday afternoon, the cheapest single ticket available on StubHub for Friday’s regional semifinal doubleheader (also featuring Virginia versus Michigan State) was $594.05 -- for a bar-stool seat no less.

Ollie and Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg, good friends and former teammates with the Chicago Bulls, have both played at the Garden many times.

“It’s special. I can’t say it’s not,” said Ollie, who later called it “the greatest arena alive for basketball.”

The Garden was the first thing Hoiberg brought up in his pregame news conference.

“I’ll start out just by saying how excited our team is to be out here in New York City,” he said. “Our guys get the opportunity to play at Madison Square Garden. I’ll never forget my first time here when the announcer comes on and says, ‘Welcome to Madison Square Garden, the world’s most famous arena.’”

Iowa State is used to playing in front of large crowds -- the Cyclones were ranked No. 22 in Division I home attendance this season, averaging 13,393 fans per game. But Ames, Iowa, is more than 1,000 miles away, and the Cyclones have played at the Garden only three times in school history, the last being an 84-81 loss to Rutgers in the semifinals of the 2004 NIT.

Heck, Iowa State forward Dustin Hogue, a native of nearby Yonkers, N.Y., had never even set foot in the Garden before Thursday’s open practice.

Hoiberg admitted some concern. “To come out and experience this is just awesome for our guys,” he said. “[But] you try to get the ‘wow’ factor out of the way as quickly as possible, so they can focus on the task at hand.”

The Cyclones did look a little more like tourists than the Huskies did when they walked on the floor two hours later. Hogue asked someone to take a picture of him at center court. Reserve forward Daniel Edozie pointed up at the giant overhead scoreboard in apparent glee.

But Hoiberg sounded confident that come Friday night, his team will be good to go.

“That’s been my message to them -- enjoy this day, in a very casual setting to go out there and get used to the shooting background and the rims,” he said. “Then tomorrow it’s all about business.

“Once that thing goes up tomorrow at 7:27, our guys will be ready to play.”

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Louisville won the championship in its one and only appearance in the American Athletic Conference tournament, beating UConn 71-61 Saturday at FedExForum. Here are five observations from the Cardinals' win:

1. Louisville passes the eye test with flying colors. Louisville dominated the American tournament, trailing for only 27 seconds (ironically, during a 61-point drubbing against Rutgers). Louisville coach Rick Pitino said immediately after the game that the Cardinals will be a No. 1 seed. But he pulled back after, saying in the postgame news conference that the Cardinals should be but won't be a No. 1 seed. If the committee were to give the Cardinals a 1-seed then it would be revamping the entire system. If you had just landed from the moon and saw this team the past week you wouldn't have thought there is a better team in the country.

But the season has to be put in context and Louisville doesn't look like it will have a nonconference win against the field. The Cardinals don't have a bad loss. But the numbers aren't in Louisville's favor with a .500 record against top-50 teams, seven nonconference games against teams below 100, 12 conference games against teams below 140. After the game, Pitino said that you can't blame the Cardinals for the schedule or the league but to blame football (I think that was a shot toward the breakup of the Big East). Still, no one is going to want to be in the same bracket with the Cardinals. Expect the weakest No. 1 to get a strong No. 2 Louisville in its region.

2. Louisville is a force to be reckoned with in conference tournament play. The Cardinals have won three straight postseason tournament titles -- two in the Big East and one in the American. The Cardinals have won all their conference tournament title games by double-digit points for the second straight season. Add to that Louisville’s two straight Final Four trips and one national championship, with a possibility for a repeat. Yet, for whatever reason, that is not being discussed much nationally.

The conference the Cardinals play in may have something to do with that, but Louisville deserves at least some talk of having built a budding dynasty. As he departed his postgame news conference, Pitino remarked that the Cardinals were heading to their ninth conference next season. He's not that far off. Louisville has been in the Missouri Valley, Metro, Conference USA, Big East, American and next season the ACC.

3. Russ Smith, the overshadowed senior, was named the American Conference tournament MVP. He didn't get player of the year in the conference. That went to UConn's Shabazz Napier. Cincinnati's Sean Kilpatrick was a possible selection and had a strong case over either player. Yet, Smith stood tall yet again with a conference title. He scored 42 points in the win over Rutgers and while he wasn't as dominant against UConn (19 points) he made winning plays.

Smith bought into being a leader in his senior season from the jump. He didn't leave for the NBA after last season, not just because he wasn't going to be a first-round pick, but as much because he enjoyed the college experience. Smith said after the game that he loved Louisville and appreciated getting an education, the friends he has made in the city and at the school and the whole college experience. He said earlier in the week that he learned how to read screens, where to be on the court and became a much better basketball player playing for Pitino. Smith gets it and will leave quite a legacy at Louisville when he's through after the NCAA tournament.

4. Montrezl Harrell will be one of the toughest matchups in the NCAA tournament. Memphis coach Josh Pastner said Harrell is a difference-maker. Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said Harrell is the most versatile player on the team, someone who can defend, rebound and is an all-around talent. Harrell has made everyone forget about Chane Behanan. Harrell has been sensational and not just because of his dunking. He finished with 22 points, 11 boards and 3 blocks in the title game.

Pitino called him the best power forward in the country. He may be the hardest to guard on the weak side, on the break or in transition. A year ago, Pitino said Harrell was the best NBA talent he had on his team. That may be hard to argue against.

5. What’s the ceiling for UConn? The Huskies got rocked by Louisville last Saturday and while they were in the game during stretches this Saturday, they couldn't cut the deficit to under 10 when it mattered. But the Huskies didn't match up well with Louisville. Napier couldn't shake the Louisville perimeter, forcing most of his shots. He rarely had a good look and neither did Ryan Boatright. The bright spot for the Huskies this week was the play of Amida Brimah, who could be a major factor if the Huskies are to win a game or two in the NCAA tournament. The freshman big man has made quite a leap in his development this season. He must be a board man and create some balance for the Huskies to advance. UConn coach Kevin Ollie remained upbeat after the game and predicted a good run for the Huskies next week.

Napier said he never gave it much thought that the Huskies would be in the NCAA tournament after not being allowed to participate last season. But with Selection Sunday at hand, he is appreciating the opportunity to be in the tournament. That's why he remained in Storrs, Conn., when others did not. UConn still has a player who can carry the Huskies a round, but more important, if the complementary players like Brimah, DeAndre Daniels and Niels Giffey perform well, then the Huskies have a real shot to be playing into the second weekend.

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