In Face of Adversity, Kevin Ollie Having Perhaps Best Year on Sidelines
February 24, 2017
Open the dictionary and look for the word that describes the 2016-17 UConn men's basketball season and you'll perhaps flip to the page holding the above definition. Throughout his life, head coach Kevin Ollie has stared adversity straight in the face, always coming out of it better than he previously was. His 11-team NBA career has been well-chronicled and the perspective he took away and shared with those around him during that time is evidence of that. Viewed as a mentor, a leader, those were the values that led him back to UConn, hand-picked by Jim Calhoun to continue the tradition he built. So when Ollie was faced with what occurred over the first month of the season, including a 9-point opening night loss to Wagner followed by the 3-point defeat at the hands of Northeastern, both at Gampel, the preseason predictions looked bleak for No. 20 in the nation and expectations went out the window. But did you expect the person Jim Calhoun called the best leader he coached to concede? Hardly.
When the going gets tough, the tough get going as the saying goes, or in Ollie's instance, 'We take the stairs, escalators are for cowards.' So even though the two early losses marked the first 0-2 start in the UConn program since 1968, an optimist could look past the end results over those first two outings and see that there certainly was promise. Freshman point guard Alterique Gilbert showed flashes of why he was a high school McDonald's All-American and VCU transfer Terry Larrier, finally playing after sitting out his transfer year, reaped length and versatility. And after the final whistle blew in the loss to Calhoun's old employer from Boston, there was Ollie, owning up to the loss and promising things would get better.
"I didn't ever imagine that we'd be 0-2 at this point," he said in the bowels of Gampel, clearly disappointed. "It happens and I need to make adjustments as a coach."
The Huskies headed west, a trip that could potentially give the team a chance to get away from the headlines and one that included a stop close to Ollie's home, playing Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles on their way to Maui. And then adversity struck again in the form of a torn labrum in Gilbert's left shoulder. The Huskies, already without freshman Mamadou Diarra, pulled out a 3-point win and continued on to Maui without Gilbert available for at least the opener.
At 1-2, the tournament opened with a match-up against Oklahoma State, the highest scoring team in the nation. After closing an early 18-3 hole, Larrier went down with an ACL injury, later confirmed torn and Ollie was again left with an even more depleted roster. His guys fought that day, eventually falling 98-90 to the Cowboys, but they showed heart, which became even more prominent as the season went along. A win over Chaminade and a tournament closing loss in the fifth-place game to Oregon and UConn headed back to Connecticut on a long plane ride, with assessments on Gilbert & Diarra's availability for the remainder of the season, awaiting them.
The prognosis was not good. Gilbert needed surgery and Diarra was diagnosed with patellofemoral syndrome, an abnormal wearing down of cartilage in the knee. Both were ruled out for the year, bringing Ollie's rotation down to just eight.
"It's a tough time," Ollie said after the news broke. "Injuries are part of basketball and life doesn't give you a warning shot. We need to make adjustments in the game. Everybody's just got to be ready. We've got eight guys. We've got enough in here to get it done, to win a lot of games."
At 2-4, UConn began their XL Center slate against Boston University, rolling out their sixth starting lineup in just seven games, as Ollie searched for some sort of consistency, starting both Steven Enoch and freshman Christian Vital for the first time. They struggled offensively, shooting just 32-percent, but the UConn defense was the story, holding on for a 51-49 win ahead of the much anticipated match-up with Syracuse at the Garden, where Vital's free throws down the stretch clinched the emotional win at the Huskies home-away-from-home.
A close road loss at Ohio State followed, sparking another change in the lineup as Facey was back in, a spot he has not conceded since. His performance that night speaks for itself, 20 points and 9 boards during a blowout win over North Florida. It was a coming out party of sorts for the senior and any message Ollie had sent had clearly sunk in.
UConn then returned to Hartford to play host to the SEC's Auburn Tigers, a game that saw adversity strike once again. Jalen Adams went down with a concussion and UConn fell in OT, but the bigger concern was Adams' health and availability as AAC-play opened. The sophomore point was unavailable and Ollie was forced to roll out his seventh starting lineup in a game that turned out to be the lowest point of the season in terms of performance. UConn scored just 12 first half points and trailed by as many as 26 on their home court, sparking boos to reign down from the stands above.
"They can do whatever they want to do," Ollie said. "They paid money for us to come in here and if they want to boo, they can boo. We're going to continue to have faith and we're going to continue to have fight. We've just got to play harder and take care of what we've got to take care of."
From afar, the year was quickly spiraling out of control and even with Adams return against Tulsa, the Huskies lost two more, including on the road at Memphis, dropping the overall record to 5-9, 0-3 in AAC play. But just when you thought all was lost, Ollie and the team put together complete games against both UCF and Temple and suddenly there was a glimmer of hope. And it continued despite the heartbreaking loss at old-Big East rival Georgetown, another strong performance, before Ollie got more bad news. Enoch was out for SMU and freshman Juwan Durham would miss the following three games as well. UConn was down to just six scholarship guys over that stretch, one that would challenge the Huskies mental make-up.
They responded. In the face of defeat, they responded. Seven wins in eight games and throughout, Ollie was brilliant. He has mixed and matched defenses, creating confusion among opposing offenses. His offensive sets coming off timeouts have been stellar, including Jalen Adams' game-winner against Temple. Over the now nine-game stretch, the team has embraced Ollie's never-say-die attitude, including the 17-point comeback win at the XL Center in Hartford and overcoming a ten-point deficit in Philly.
And despite the loss to Houston on Wednesday, which included the loss of both Purvis and Facey to ridiculous foul calls down the stretch, the team played well, on the road, against one of the top three in the league. Skeptics will point to the 0-4 record against the top three teams in the AAC, 1-5 if you expand that to include Memphis, who sits at number five. You could also look at the 5-12 record against teams at or above .500, but in doing so, you'd also be ignoring the adversity from start-to-finish this team has had to overcome. Over the last week and a half, the Huskies have doubled their win total for the season on the road and added two of their five total wins against teams with winning records. In other words, they are playing their best basketball of the year at exactly the right time. They also get a chance to make a further statement against the top two in the league at home against both SMU and Cincinnati, before heading into the AAC Tournament.
Then there is the individual growth shown by seniors Kentan Facey, who can explode for a double-double on any given night and Rodney Purvis, who has turned his season completely around. Talented players, no doubt, but they have absolutely been aided by great coaching from KO. Over the last eight games, Purvis is shooting 53-percent from behind the arc, up from 27-percent over the better part of the first three months of the season. He's also averaging 16 points per game in one of the greatest individual turnarounds in the midst of a season for a player in Storrs.
Yes, UConn has won a National Championship under Kevin Ollie. Yes, UConn had the incredible season during the postseason ban in KO's first year. Yes, the Huskies went on an incredible run through the AAC Tournament a year ago. But with everything thrown at Ollie in 2016-17, an argument could be made that this season could potentially be looked at as one of his best on the sidelines. Through the years there have been the rumors that KO was looking at the NBA and there was certainly interest coming from his hometown Lakers in 2014 after the title. But as Ollie said himself during his introduction on September 12, 2012, there's no place he'd rather be.
"I'm going to coach this team like I'm going to be here for a lifetime," he said that day in Gampel Pavilion. "I'm going to tell recruits that. And I know I'm going to be here and that's what I believe. If anybody says something different, that's their opinion. I want to retire here like Coach Calhoun."
It's absolutely clear that UConn Nation has his back. Thursday afternoon I posted a poll asking for thoughts about KO's future should the Huskies fall short of their goal of the NCAA Tournament. There were quick and strong responses, as well as a number of votes; within four hours, well over four-hundred. Of those, 91-percent agreed Ollie should be back on the sidelines, showing overwhelming support, regardless of how the rest of 2016-17 plays out.
A clear message was sent and one that should leave no doubt. Kevin Ollie is the man for the job, he's the coach that fans believe in and who they want to lead this program well into the future. Job. Well. Done.
As Ollie told the NY Times in 2010, “I’m not about making history. I’m about creating a future.”
UConn Nation agrees.
MATT SCHONVISKY / SITE CREATOR