Coach Kevin Ollie has his UConn Huskies poised for the upset of top-ranked Florida in Saturday’s Final Four semifinal showdown. His team topped the Gators during the regular season and with senior All-American G Shabazz Napier leading the way, seventh-seeded UConn could become the highest seed to win the National Championship since Villanova did it in 1985 as a No. 8 seed.
Ollie, 41, is just the fourth coach in NCAA history to reach the Final Four in his first appearance in the tournament, but his success with the Huskies was hardly right out of the gate. Ollie was named Connecticut’s interim head coach in 2012 after Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun stepped down due to health reasons and almost immediately, Ollie’s credentials were questioned, despite his having been a star guard at UConn in the 90’s and despite his two years as one of Calhoun’s assistant coaches. Calhoun wanted Ollie as his successor and orchestrated the hire.
“Coach was retiring at a certain time just so I could get the job,” Ollie said in an interview. “He vouched for me. He always believed in me.”
The issues with his new team would not end there. The Huskies won the National Championship one year earlier in 2011, but the program was placed on academic probation the following season and banned from competing in the 2013 NCAA Tournament. Ollie also witnessed the demise of his team’s conference, The Big East, which later became the American Athletic Conference. The turmoil resulted in players transferring and a cloud of uncertainty hovering over Ollie and his program, all in his first year at the helm. Despite it all, the Huskies finished 20-10 and a strong core of players, none more important than Napier, vowed to return. Ollie weathered the storm and now sits two games away from college basketball’s highest achievement.
More than anything else in Ollie’s two years with UConn, his team has demonstrated a unique toughness in moving past all the obstacles and getting to this point. The Huskies showcased that same resolve in wins against Villanova, Iowa State and Michigan State, the East region’s second, third and fourth seeds, respectively.
Just as in Ollie’s fifteen year NBA career as an under-appreciated journeyman, he was the Huskies point man running the show while big name players like Ray Allen got all the recognition. His coaching style is laced with that same team first philosophy. According to one of his former NBA teammates, Reggie Miller, Ollie was already a coach when he was a player.
“He was a meticulous preparer and would often arrive at the gym hours early,” Miller said in an interview with USA Today. “Chewing over film, scouring game plans, red-lettering notes and scouting reports.”
Ollie saw this as a way of getting any advantage he could on players that were quicker, stronger and had more overall talent than he did. Ironically, his Huskies will be facing similar odds when they take the court against top-ranked Florida Saturday. One advantage they will have is the knowledge that they can beat the Gators. They already have.
Commentary by Rick Sarlat