What can Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie do for an encore?
In his first season as head coach two years ago, replacing Hall of Famer Jim Calhoun, he kept the program united. It was not easy since the Huskies were ineligible for postseason play due to the program's past issues with its academic progress rate (APR).
Last season, Connecticut marched through the NCAA tournament and cut down the nets in North Texas. Beating the likes of Villanova, Iowa State, Michigan State, Florida and Kentucky was an impressive run.
The Huskies have built one of the best hoop programs in America. They have four championships in just 15 seasons, with earlier championships in 1999, 2004 and 2011. Certain guys are great tournament coaches. Calhoun, one of my original Frank Lloyd Wrights who built this program from scratch, is certainly one of them. And Ollie is, too.
For 13 years, Ollie had to fight for survival to stick in the NBA as a player. He worked on one-year deals year after year. So nothing intimidates him. He built a reputation as a great practice player and a great teammate guys liked hanging out with.
He built respect among UConn fans for the way he got his team to focus and win 20 games in 2012-13, when the Huskies were banned from playing in the postseason. He then restored the dignity of the program with UConn's latest run through March Madness, maxing out the talents of players like guards Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright and forward DeAndre Daniels, who had a breakout March.
Ollie, who played for Calhoun in the '90s and came back to campus to serve as one of his assistants for two years, made a huge impression on the UConn administration. They just bumped his annual salary to $3 million for multiple years, nearly tripling the $1.25 million he was paid this past season. Ollie was originally given a seven-month deal when he replaced Calhoun, who retired in Sept. 2012.
Winning a national title is unique and special. It doesn't happen every day. A lot of great coaches, who don't have to validate themselves, have never won one. But you know what really impressed me about Ollie? He never whined and cried about the fact the Huskies couldn't play in the postseason during his first season. He just rolled up his sleeves and got to work.
It couldn't have been easy following a guy like Calhoun, knowing he had nowhere to go that first year. But he got Connecticut to play hard every day. Ollie validated Calhoun's strong feelings about him; he wouldn't have gotten the job unless Calhoun went to bat and fought for him. There was an element of the UConn fan base who wanted a bigger name and weren't happy about Calhoun handpicking his successor.
Now those same fans are on Cloud Nine. Ollie was a believer and he made his players believers.
UConn should be a top 20 team in the upcoming season. The return of Boatright in the backcourt will be a key. Can he be the next Kemba Walker or Shabazz Napier in the leadership department? The expectations for him will be greater. The Huskies also gain the eligibility of transfer Rodney Purvis, a McDonald's All America from NC State. Amida Brimah, a 6-foot-10 sophomore shot-blocking big man, should get better and better with experience. And Ollie also welcomes in an impressive recruiting class.
The Huskies will play Duke at the Izod Center in New Jersey in December, as well as other high-profile nonconference games against Florida, Stanford and Texas. UConn is also playing in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off next season. Connecticut also catches a break in the American Athletic Conference as Louisville has departed to the ACC.
Ollie has reason to be optimistic about the coming season.