HARTFORD, Conn. – UConn coach Kevin Ollie walked out onto the XL Center floor and it just felt different.
It’s a floor he knows well having played for four years at UConn and even as a head coach had walked out there several other times this season.
This was different.
The crowd rose to their feet and gave Ollie a standing ovation when he appeared.
It was like his first time in the bright lights once again.
“My legs were shaking and everything,” Ollie said. “It was like first game I stepped in the XL Center. It was a remarkable buzz. Legs were shaking caused I was excited. Excited for the moment. I never thought it would ever happen for a guy out of South Central Los Angeles.”
Ollie was named the 18th head coach of the University of Connecticut men’s basketball team in September. That was a shotgun marriage necessitated by Jim Calhoun’s retirement.
On Saturday Ollie stepped out on the floor on merit. He signed a 5-year contract extension that keeps him at his alma mater through the 2017-18 season.
The Huskies as a team then showed the fans why Ollie’s the coach for this year and years to come.
A team ineligible for the postseason and seemingly nothing to play for continues to play with energy and passion as it ground out a 61-53 win over Washington on Saturday night.
The Huskies are now 10-2 on the season as a roster that was decimated by defections and transfers defies conventional wisdom as it plays with passion and purpose. Ollie would have it no other way.
UConn will take a step up in class on Tuesday when it open Big East play at Marquette, but the seeds of Ollie’s tenure have already been sown. The Huskies under Ollie may not be as talented as past editions – there are no lottery picks on the roster – but they are winning games and doing it the way their rookie head coach wants.
There is a lot of negative energy coming out of Storrs these days with postseason bans because of academics and conference realignment that has left the Huskies so far behind. It stops when it comes to the men’s basketball program. Ollie has been able to break through that morose in perhaps his most impressive feat in his short tenure as basketball coach.
Where is UConn headed? Right back to the top of college basketball where they have been according to the head coach.
“I am an unrealistic thinker,” Ollie said. “That is one thing I learned from Coach Calhoun. I am an unrealistic thinker. To make this a powerhouse in Storrs is unrealistic thinking, that’s how I think. Unrealistic. I am never going to settle for mediocrity and never let my team settle for mediocrity.”
They type of positive thinking has shown through to the Huskies team.
Against Washington, Omar Calhoun led the Huskies with 14 points while Shabazz Napier added 13 points and eight rebounds. It wasn’t a pretty game as UConn held Washington to 29.7 percent shooting, but it was another victory, the 10th of the year.
The players put a lot of pressure on themselves to get Ollie a contract extension. That it came to pass was just the things players wanted to hear.
“It was really important,” Napier said. “Even though he had the coaching job, it was icing on the cake to beat Washington). We got excited for him and wanted to get him his first career win as longtime head coach. We wanted to give it our all and we were fortunate with the win.
“I am happy. I am happy it happened. He’s earned this spot. It was given to him at first and everyone was looking at him if he would be a good job off the court. He’s been doing a spectacular job off the court and on the court. Him and the other coaches are the reason we are 10-2.”
Ollie has the Huskies on the cusp of the Top 25 heading into Big East play despite being undermanned. The rebounding advantage against Washington was a surprise, with it being the only second time the Huskies had won that battle. UConn isn’t perfect and there will be difficult times ahead, but the groundwork for this year and future years is being laid.
The Huskies have also taken Ollie’s optimism and passion and have played the season with a focus that is unexpected. College basketball is built around March Madness and the postseason, but the postseason ineligibility has done nothing to deter UConn.
“It’s the pride putting on that jersey,” Ollie said. “Slip on that jersey something magical happens. We don’t take that for granted.”
If there is a game to be played, this UConn team wants to win it.
“Passion for the game. No one goes out there and not want to win,” Napier said. “I’ve been playing this game since I was five. I am not not going to play hard because I can’t make the tournament. It sucks, I think about it all the time. That’s what we want to play for. Sometimes you have to deal with what’s given to you. Sometimes you can’t change your cards, you have to deal with it and play with it and do it to the best of your ability and play for our coach and our fans.”
The Huskies will head out on the road on Monday to Milwaukee. The season figures to be long and difficult.
On Saturday after three months of uncertainty, UConn knows what it’s going to be and who is going to captain the ship longterm.