UConn men: Exhibition in name only

Connecticut head coach Kevin Ollie gestures during the first half of an NCAA basketball game against AIC in Storrs, Conn., Thursday, Nov. 1, 2012. Connecticut won 78-63. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

John F. Silver

STORRS, Conn. – The start to the Kevin Ollie coaching era at the University of Connecticut was off to a rough start in an exhibition game against American International College on Thursday.

The Huskies began Ollie’s career shooting 1 of 9 as the crowd in Gampel Pavilion began to get an uneasy feeling. Was this what we all have to look forward to in the post-Jim Calhoun era?

Ollie looked towards press row only to see Hall of Fame head coach Jim Calhoun sitting nest to Director of Athletics Warde Manuel. There was no help there. This was on Ollie to turn it around.

For a guy on a seven month tryout, there isn’t a lot of rope and there is a lot of pressure.

“When you go 1 for 9, I was like ‘Man, this might be my only time out here,’” Ollie said.

After a first half where the Huskies looked jittery and uneasy, they settled into the type they want to be in the second half. UConn scored 50 second half points and turned at one point a nine-point first half deficit into a comfortable 78-63 win at Gampel Pavilion.

Freshman Omar Calhoun scored 21 of his game-high 24 points in the second half and Ryan Boatright added 14 points while igniting the UConn defense in the second half as the Huskies rallied from a 29-28 deficit to win going away.

Ollie, in his first action as a head coach, looked comfortable and in control. Even with the Huskies down early, he didn’t panic and got UConn to right the ship.

“This is a process, we’re going to keep building, we’re going to keep playing the right way and we’re going to respect the game and respect this great university and we’re going to go out there and play with effort,” Ollie said. “They did that in spurts. We’re going to have to do it for 40 minutes and try to sustain it.”

Connecticut’s Ryan Boatright, center goes up for a basket on, Thursday, Nov. 1, 2012. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

The Huskies showed many of their flaws, perhaps ones they won’t be able to overcome in the first half. UConn isn’t a big team and started 6-8, 195-pound DeAndre Daniels at the power forward spot and 6-foot-8 240-pound Tyler Olander at center. That unit struggled early on securing the ball rebounding. The Huskies struggled to move the ball with Boatright and guard Shabazz Napier unsure if they should dominate the ball or become a scorer. There were breakdowns and AIC managed 34 points in the paint, a clear indication of a lack of interior defense.

That’s what the Huskies did wrong. What they did right is show and uptempo game with speed and an ability to turn turnovers into points.

The Huskies scored 25 points off of 18 AIC turnovers coming up with nine steals. That helped unleash an offense that scored 50 points in the first half.

After a shaky first half freshman guard and Brooklyn’s own Omar Calhoun came alive. Calhoun was 1 of 4 in the opening half but watched a 3-pointer nestle into the basket on his third try. He got going in the second half hitting 7 of 10 shots and showcasing an ability to not only shoot from 3, but also finish at the basket.

At 6 foot-5, Calhoun can step into the role as a wing scorer that was vacated by former guard Jeremy Lamb, now with the Oklahoma City Thunder. There are shots to be had, and if Calhoun keeps on getting open looks, shots to be made.

“Omar can score,” Boatright said. “He has a big body at 6-foot-5 and athletic. Not only can he shoot good, he has a quick release and has confidence. Omar is a great player and you can expect that all year coming from what I see him do (in practice). As long as he gets open shots when they concentrate on me, Shabazz and Tyler, and he knocks them down, he’s going to have a great season.”

Calhoun didn’t lack for confidence in the second half. As his points started to pile up, so did his confidence.

“I played pretty good,” Calhoun said. “The first half I was a little jittery.

“I missed the first two and I knew I had good looks at them. Everybody told me to calm down and keep playing. When I hit the third one it started to flow with me a little better. I started to get the flow better.”

Calhoun was feeling a little too good for himself for Ollie’s liking. Like all New York City players, there is a flair to Calhoun’s game and while Ollie liked his young guards play, he wants him to rein in the antics.

After a 3-pointer Calhoun made a 3-point sign to the crowd and also flexed his muscles after a basket and foul.

“Omar played basketball. He read his defender and made shots. He knows how to play basketball and kept his composure,” Ollie said. “I told him don’t lay on the successes. Build upon it. I told him to stay humble. I didn’t like the gestures after the layups. That’s not who we are. He’s going to learn that and get better and he’s going to be a great player for this university.”

UConn’s weakness is inside with a dearth of bigs with the temporary loss of 7-foot center Enosch Wolf to a concussion. Olander added nine points and eight rebounds while Daniels shook off shaky play early on to score eight points and grab nine rebounds. The Huskies are going to need more nights like that this season.

For Ollie, Saturday didn’t count towards his career coaching record nor will Sunday’s game against UMass-Lowell.

The games mattered to Ollie and despite the poor start, it’s how the Huskies finished that left the coach encouraged.

“If we didn’t have no effort I would be pissed off,” Ollie said. “The effort was there.”