UConn playing for pride under new coach Ollie
By PAT EATON-ROBB
STORRS, Conn. (AP) There is a lot Connecticut doesn't have this season.
The Huskies don't have a chance to play in the postseason after failing to meet NCAA academic standards. They don't have the five players who left the program early after the postseason ban was announced. And they don't have Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun, who retired in September.
The Huskies, however, say the cupboard is not exactly bare. They still have a very strong backcourt. They have a new and energized head coach in Kevin Ollie. And they have a togetherness forged from the adversity of the offseason.
After a disappointing 20-14 season that ended with a loss in the first round of the NCAA tournament, they are also in the unusual position of not having to meet anyone else's lofty expectations.
"Nobody thinks we're good enough," said sophomore guard Ryan Boatright, one of just five players with notable playing time returning from last year's team. "But we feel like we've got enough here to have a successful season and to open a lot of people's eyes this year, and to prove everybody wrong. I feel that's the chip we've got on our shoulders, to prove the world wrong."
And if taking on the world isn't enough of a motivation, players say the also will be playing hard for their coach and his future.
Ollie, who doesn't turn 40 until December, is Calhoun's hand-picked successor. He became an assistant at UConn in 2010, after 13 years as an NBA journeyman. But, he has never been a head coach on any level.
That was the reason Athletic Director Warde Manual said he gave Ollie just a one-season contract, to see if he can do the job.
"We've all formed a bond with him," said guard Shabazz Napier. "We're all upset that he only got seven months. We felt he should have got more than that. But at the end of the day, sometimes I guess you have to prove yourself, and that's what is going to happen."
Ollie has quickly established himself and his energetic style, running practices that focus on conditioning and accountability. He joins his team in gym shorts, demonstrating what he wants from them and yelling "full-speed, full-speed."
He says the Huskies will have a West Coast-style offense with an East Coast mentality on defense.
"We try to play defense all the time; we try to make our free throws and we try to pressure the ball, and we've got to rebound," he said. "We do those four things right and we'll win our share, I believe."
And while he may be a newcomer to the job, his coaching staff has 57 years of collegiate experience. He also has Calhoun on speed-dial, and is drawing from other mentors from his days in the NBA, such as Larry Brown, who is now the head coach at SMU.
"I love that kid," Brown said. "He's pretty special. He was as well respected as any player I ever coached. He loves Connecticut. He loves coach Calhoun. He's not worried about following a legend; he's going to embrace it. He has experienced guys sitting with him who are loyal and he's got the head coach who is championing this."
The team's talent level is more of a question.
Their backcourt seems solid with Napier, Boatright, freshman Omar Calhoun and Holy Cross transfer R.J. Evans.
But up front, Alex Oriakhi and Roscoe Smith both have transferred, leading the Huskies to rely on former role players such as sophomore DeAndre Daniels and those with even less experience, such as 7-foot-1 center Enosch Wolf.
Ollie says that will mean playing a four-out offense much of the time, emphasizing rebounding and a transition game.
The team's success, he said, will have a lot to do with its attitude, and maintaining that chip on their shoulder.
The Huskies do have a chance to win a couple of trophies early in the season. They open on Nov. 9 against Michigan State in the Armed Forces Classic at the Ramstein Air Base in Germany, something that has the team's three German players excited. They also will play in the Paradise Jam in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
"We just want to win," said Omar Calhoun. "We want to upset teams. We want to be the bad boys in the Big East, just go out there and just play hard and have a different intensity than everyone else."
Updated October 31, 2012