Published: Wednesday, October 31, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, October 31, 2012 23:10
A new era of UConn basketball will begin tonight when Kevin Ollie leads his team onto the court at Gampel Pavilion to face AIC in the first exhibition game of the 2012-2013 season. The start of the new season marks Ollie’s head coaching debut and the beginning of what he described as a “unique” year for the program.
Ollie assumed the position as head coach Sept. 13 when Jim Calhoun retired after 26 seasons. Ollie played for the Huskies from 1991-1995 before playing professionally for 15 seasons, including 13 in the National Basketball Association. He served as an assistant coach under Calhoun since the 2010 championship season.
“I’m ready for (AIC),” Ollie said when asked about any nerves preceding his head coaching debut. “You may call it nerves; I call it excitement. I’m happy to be out there and I’m happy to be coaching this team. They have been loyal to this program and loyal to this fan base.”
It has been a tumultuous off-season for the men’s basketball program. The NCAA handed UConn a postseason ban relating to subpar Academic Progress Rate (APR) scores during a four-year span beginning in 2007. During this stretch, they fell below the required APR of 900. Multiple appeals by the university rejected by the NCAA.
Although this year’s team is ineligible for postseason play, it still feels that it has plenty to play for.
“We are playing hard for the fans that have stayed with us during this trying time,” said Ollie.
He said that the team has been unified by the ban, and has used it as motivation to gel together and become a unit.
“It is all about each other on this team,” junior center Tyler Olander said. “We want everybody to succeed and to be successful. We are willing to make the extra passes on offense, we are willing to sacrifice our bodies on defense and we all have confidence in the next guy.”
Although UConn lost several major contributors last year to both the NBA Draft (Jeremy Lamb, Andre Drummond) and to transferring (Alex Oriakhi to Missouri, Roscoe Smith to UNLV), they acquired a veteran leader when senior RJ Evans transferred to UConn from Holy Cross.
“RJ earned the attention of his teammates as soon as we got on the court,” Ollie said. “He just knows how to play basketball and that is what we need. You know what that you are going to get a consistent effort from him each and every night.”
With no other seniors on the roster, Evans is prepared to step into a leadership role immediately, alongside juniors Shabazz Napier, Niels Giffey, and Olander.
“I have to be the steady guy out there,” Evans said. “When things break down, I have to be the guy. I also have to be very vocal, which is something that I have been working on, as communication is something that we can get better on.”
Last season, a very talented team that entered the season with nationwide hype and championship expectations failed to deliver, finishing with a 20-14 record and eventually falling to Iowa State in the first round of the NCAA tournament, a memory that Olander said he is ready to put behind him.
“The other day I was walking back from class and (sophomore forward) Deandre Daniels said to me, ‘This is going to be the first time we suit up since Iowa State,’” said Olander. “We’re ready to go.”