Ollie is now the man in charge at Connecticut
When Connecticut plays Pitt on Saturday in the final Big East regular-season meeting between the schools, it will be difficult to determine which of the following is more unbelievable:
That neither the Huskies (12-4, 2-2 Big East) nor Panthers (14-4, 2-3) are nationally ranked, or that Jim Calhoun won't be standing on the Connecticut sideline.
This marks UConn's first trip to Petersen Events Center without the coach who won three NCAA crowns, 10 conference regular-season championships and seven Big East tournament titles.
Now coaching the Huskies is his hand-picked successor, Kevin Ollie, a former UConn point guard and 13-year NBA veteran who was elevated when Calhoun retired in September. After a season-opening victory over Michigan State, Ollie was rewarded last month with a five-year contract extension worth $7 million.
“This is Kevin's team, Kevin's show,” said Calhoun, now a special assistant to UConn athletic director Warde Manuel. “Kevin Ollie is such a unique individual. Kevin was always, in my opinion, the epitome of what you wanted as a person and a student-athlete. His experiences in the NBA and CBA — he went undrafted — showed that while he wasn't most talented, he had character, toughness, a belief in God and belief in UConn.
“He spanned so many people and situations for us. He touched all the things I thought would be important to a) keep the family together and b) be an outstanding coach. I'm really proud of what Kevin's doing. He's proven himself right away.”
Next for Ollie is proving he can win at the Pete. The Panthers have won five of six meetings against Connecticut, including the last three, and are looking to avenge their 75-65 loss to the Huskies last March.
“Connecticut has a great history. It's a prestigious school that has won national championships, had a lot of great players and has great players now,” Pitt junior swingman Lamar Patterson said. “When you play a team like that, you always want to make sure that you be aggressive and get that W.”
Ollie inherited a program amid an NCAA postseason ban for low APR rates, and UConn lost four starters from the team that beat Pitt last season, Leading scorer Jeremy Lamb and top rebounder Andre Drummond left early and were NBA lottery picks. Three others transferred, including starting center Alex Oriakhi (Missouri) and forward Roscoe Smith (UNLV).
Compounding matters is that junior guard Shabazz Napier, the lone returning starter and leading scorer at 17.1 points a game, is questionable after injuring his shoulder in Monday's 73-58 loss to Louisville in Hartford, Conn.
The Huskies have three other starters scoring in double figures: sophomore guard Ryan Boatright (15.8), sophomore forward DeAndre Daniels (10.9) and freshman guard Omar Calhoun (10.7).
Pitt knows how important following its victory at Villanova with another against Connecticut could be for its momentum, even if the rivalry won't seem the same without Calhoun.
“Looking over there, I'd think he'll still be somewhere close by,” Patterson said. “I'm sure he's got an ear in there somewhere. But Kevin Ollie is doing good things over there.”