Bertothy: UConn men in good hands with Ollie

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Ernie Bertothy
Ernie Bertothy

This season was the first in many years that held no promise of a postseason run for the UConn men’s basketball team. There would be no buzzer-beaters, nail-biters or classic matchups that we’ve come to expect from the Huskies.

UConn and its first-year head coach Kevin Ollie didn’t have a chance to dance in this year’s NCAA tournament, or in what was effectively the last Big East tournament earlier this month. That was clear back in October during the team’s first official practice.

That limitation didn’t stop the Huskies from having a successful season. Ollie, affectionately known by his initials, KO, quickly earned the respect of his players, school administration, fans and media each step along the way.

Ollie replaced coaching legend Jim Calhoun, handled the stain of a postseason ban, dealt with conference realignment and still created a positive atmosphere on and off the court in Storrs. He and the Huskies gave fans plenty to cheer about, and a lot to look forward to in years to come.

With no postseason positioning or trophies to attain, the Huskies played with passion. Wins over big-name programs Michigan State, Syracuse and Notre Dame highlighted the team’s resume.

But a closer inspection of the slate showed this team played with pride game after game. They were a treat to watch.

It started with a win over the nationally ranked Michigan State on ESPN. After the victory, the entire team huddled around Ollie during a postgame interview.

Ollie helped inspire that team spirit. UConn gave him a seven-month contract last September. By the end of December, he earned a five-year deal.

UConn went 20-10 against a schedule that featured 13 games against teams that made the NCAA tournament field. Despite no proven frontcourt players, they went 5-2 in overtime games, including a struggle at Providence where the Huskies were out-rebounded 55-24 and still found a way to win.

The Huskies played hard every night, and when you analyze the 30-game schedule, were competitive in all but one game — a late-season loss at South Florida with two regulars missing from the lineup. Almost every game was decided in the final two minutes.

Players also developed. Shabazz Napier seized his leadership position as the team’s junior point guard and earned first team All-Big East status. That’s no small feat considering the Big East has 16 teams and received eight NCAA Tournament bids.

Freshman Omar Calhoun earned a spot on the Big East All-Rookie Team, while Ryan Boatright, who just finished his sophomore season, should be returning next season and taking the next step to be an all-league guard.

The late-season surge of DeAndre Daniels, a one-time top-10 recruit, finished the year on a high note. He averaged 12 points and 5.5 rebounds per game, and put up a 25-point, 10-rebound performance against Georgetown late in the year.

With no postseason, judgment of Ollie’s first year rests with the regular season. From that perspective, the year was a smashing success.

Sure, UConn won’t be in the Big East any longer. The annual rivalry games will be missing.

But, whomever the Huskies play, they will be in good hands with their head coach.

Ernie Bertothy is a contributing writer to the Citizen’s News.