Connecticut finished the 2011-12 season with a first-game loss to Iowa State in the NCAA Tournament. Changes were on the horizon for the storied Big East program. Legendary coach Jim Calhoun who led the school to its three NCAA titles and had 618 of his 873 wins at Connecticut decided to retire. On top of that the school was hit with NCAA sanctions that resulted from low Academic Progress Rates scores. The punishment included a post season ban that meant Connecticut would be unable to get back to the NCAA Tournament in 2013.
Not only did the school have to replace an icon, they had to do so without the lure of playing in March the following season. The Huskies decided to turn to a familiar face to take the helm. Kevin Ollie who played under Calhoun from 1991-95 then had a 12-year NBA career after graduation. After he retired he joined his former coach as an assistant in 2010. After two seasons sitting beside Calhoun, he was named the new head coach on September 13, 2012 and originally given just a one-year deal. Having just a one-year contract with a team that was ineligible for post-season play seemed like an unfair set of circumstances for Ollie to some outsiders.
Ollie was undeterred by the obstacles placed in front of him he knew he had a talented roster that he could get to play hard. With the practices and all the talk out of the way it was time for Ollie and his Huskies to make their debut. Instead of getting his feet wet as a head coach, he jumped head first into the deep end of the pool taking on Tom Izzo and Michigan State in the Armed Forces Classic at Rammstein Air Force Base in Germany. The trio of Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright and DeAndre Daniels combined for 50 points, giving coach Ollie his first victory defeating the Spartans 66-62. Ollie was lauded (and rightfully so) for how hard he had his team playing. There were certainly some early bumps in the road for the first-year coach as the Huskies struggled in beating the likes of Qunnipiac and New Hampshire.
The team worked out the kinks and entered Big East play with a 10-2 record. The team would finish conference play 10-8 with wins over Notre Dame and Syracuse. The team also showed even though they weren’t eligible for tournament play they would not make it any easier for those that were. All but two of their conference losses were by single digits and 1/3 of their conference tilts went to overtime including a 63-59 season-ending win over Providence.
Welcome to 2013-14, the page has turned on Ollie, his team and all the obstacles they faced last season. It is a fresh slate, the coach and players have another year of experience. The team returns its top six scorers and welcome four newcomers who could add to the talent pool already at the disposal of Ollie.
Seniors Napier and Niels Giffey and potentially Tyler Olander (who was dismissed from the team following a DUI arrest, the charges have subsequently been dropped) provide the experience Ollie will rely on. Add juniors Daniels (12.1) and Boatright (15.4) to Napier and his 17.1 points per game and the Huskies return the highest scoring trio from the Big East last season. Napier will be joined in the back court by sophomore Omar Calhoun who started all 29 last season.
One of the biggest problems for the Huskies last year was rebounding, they ranked 290th in the country in rebounding margin in 2013. Even though Daniels led the team in boards last season the team is going to need even more of an uptick above his 5.5 last season and Giffey will need to be more formidable on the glass. The team did sign four-star recruit 6-9 Kentan Facey, the long-armed forward pulled down 12 rebounds a game last year. For the second year in a row the Huskies welcome a graduate student as Lasan Kromah joins the team from George Washington. Kromah was recruited to GW by current Husky assistant coach Karl Hobbs. The 6-6 forward averaged 10.1 points, 3.7 rebounds and was even 3rd on the team in assists (1.9) last season.
Leave no doubt Connecticut will go as far its guards and wings will take them, but a stark improvement on the glass may be just as big a factor in the team’s success.
With practice now underway Ollie and his team are looking to turn the page on 2013 and looking forward to a 2013-14 with unlimited possibilities. The Huskies open Ollie’s sophomore campaign with a meeting with Maryland in Brooklyn. They also have a potential game against Indiana in the 2k Sports Classic, as well as home tilts with Florida and Stanford before entering play in a new conference.
Coach Ollie knows that rebounding was a big issue last season and the first practice reflected that as the drills were rebounding intensive. But he will not set any goals when it comes to rebounding stats this year, he says “why limit them? I want to be plus on the backboards and I want us to put (up) a number that is gonna allow us to win.”
Not only are the Huskies entering a new conference, but being post-season eligible and starting practice earlier than ever poses some dilemmas on how to handle the extra time the team has. Ollie says,”we watch their legs, but also we have travel that I’m not accustomed to so we gotta get used to so I gotta prepare them to save their legs.”
Giffey says in terms of rebounding, “we have to step it up. We have a bigger line up this year, a couple more bodies that will help but in the end it is all mental.”
Connecticut enters the American Athletic Conference with some familiar faces (Cincinnati, Louisville, Rutgers and South Florida) and some new ones in Houston, Memphis, SMU, Temple and Central Florida. With all of the movement across the college landscape it is not only the media but also the players who have a hard time remembering who is playing where. “I don’t know how it (the AAC) will compare to the Big East but it’s going to be real competitive. We Have a good team, you got the National Champion Louisville, us, Memphis, Temple and uhh.” That is where Giffey got stuck, and who can blame him? We all do.
Connecticut should have a good year. Just how good remains to be seen. The senior captain Napier says, “I expect us to continue to push ourselves and strive to be the best team we can be.”
One thing is for sure last season is over and this team is looking forward to showing what it is capable of on the national stage once again.