The question was put after a practice to Kevin Ollie ’95 (CLAS), who enters his first season as head men’s basketball coach and the successor to Hall of Fame Coach Jim Calhoun. Would he, the reporter inquired, be as quick to take a player out of the game for making an errant pass or taking a poor shot, as his predecessor?
“If I don’t see a guy with effort, I’ll have a real quick hook,” Ollie replied. “But if I see a guy with effort and he makes a mistake honestly, I’m going to let that go. If he continues to do the same mistake, then that’s a problem. I’ll go by feel. Trust me – if the guy is not playing with effort, I’ll have a quick hook.”
Giving total effort in practice and in a game is how Ollie defied expectations as a student-athlete for Calhoun and then spent 13 nomadic years in the NBA playing for 11 different teams. His primary message to the 2012-2013 Huskies: “You can always play hard. That should not wane or waver.”
The season begins Friday at Ramstein Air Base in Germany against No. 14 Michigan State in the Armed Forces Classic (5:30 p.m. ESPN2 and UConn IMG Sports Network on 1080 WTIC).
During practices, Ollie is on the court constantly talking to his team, urging them on with his positive messages. The team itself is vocal, communicating with each other, applauding good effort and shots made.
“He is the one always giving 100 percent. I feel every time I step on the court, I’ve got to match his intensity,” says junior forward Neils Giffey ’14 (CLAS). “He’s really showing us how to work hard. I know he worked hard during his whole career. I think that’s what the whole team is buying into. Everybody respects him so much.”
Adds guard Shabazz Napier ’15 (CLAS): “Coach Ollie is the Energizer Bunny. He never stops. Coach Ollie is the guy who’s going to work and work.”
Ollie comes into his rookie coaching year with some advantages. He knows most of the players from having served as an assistant coach, had a hand in recruiting the newer student-athletes and they know him as well. He also has one of the most experienced coaching staffs in the nation, with assistants George Blaney, Glen Miller ’86 (CLAS), and Karl Hobbs ’84 (CLAS), who have been with the men’s basketball program for many years – all have championship rings from UConn’s NCAA titles, after serving as head coaches themselves.
A major challenge for Ollie is the youth of the Huskies this season, a team consisting of three freshmen, four sophomores, three juniors, and a graduate student. Of the returning players, the most experienced are Napier, Giffey, and Ryan Boatright ’15 (CLAS).
“We’re going to have some ups and downs like every team in America,” Ollie said earlier this month. “It’s going to be about how we take care of business when we’re in those valleys. If you stick together and you play hard through those valleys, you’ll overcome it. I’m not going to say it’s going to be perfect out there, because nothing’s perfect. We’ve still got a lot of work to do.”
However, Ollie’s optimistic outlook seems to have already addressed the season’s other major challenge: Motivating a team that cannot play in the postseason due to penalties imposed by the NCAA.
“They’ve got a lot of negative things that people have said about them,” he said. “But I think they’re turning it into a positive. I think these guys are going to stay together, because that’s who they are.”
“We’ve got to play 30 games like every other team in America,” says Tyler Olander ’14 (CLAS). “We have a lot to play for. We’ve got a big game in Germany, the tournament in the Virgin Islands, and the [Big East] regular season championship that we can win. We’re going to play every game like it’s a championship.”
R.J. Evans, who transferred to UConn as a graduate student with a year of eligibility after playing at Holy Cross, says he is trying to provide the upperclassman leadership that the young Huskies need this season.
“I try to be the guy who is always in the right spot at the right time so they have somebody to look up to,” Evans says. “I’ve got to be the steady guy out there on the court, even through the mistakes. I’ve got to pick up my team, be the leader, be vocal.”
Ollie says Evans has demonstrated his commitment to help lead the Huskies from his first moments on the court in practice. “He’s been wonderful. He’s given us that rock when we needed it, that person in the locker room they can talk to,” Ollie says. “You need the guy who will be the rock – those grind it out guys that you can hang your hat on every night. I know what I’m going to get from R.J.”
The Huskies will not look all that much different than in the past when they play, Ollie says. They will play UConn basketball. They will run. They will rebound. What they may lack this season in size in the front court, they hope to make up by playing strong defense. Most of all, they will give effort.
“Every time I played, I wanted to have effort because I wasn’t the most talented guy,” Ollie says. “But with effort I knew I was going to get seen on the videotape [by the coaches]. That’s what I want every day. I want us to get better every day, and then I want the players to show up and get their teammates better.”
After one of the last practices before the team headed to Germany for the 2012 opening game, Ollie was asked how he thought things were going. He smiled broadly, looking at the gaggle of media surrounding him.
“I’m a rookie. I’m learning as I go,” he said. “Coach Blaney says I’m doing a good job. So I guess I’m doing good.”