Kevin Ollie (AP)At the end of UConn's season-opening upset of 14th-ranked Michigan State in Germany on Friday night, Huskies coach Kevin Ollie passed up the chance to reflect on the significance of his first win since replacing Jim Calhoun at his alma mater.
"It's all about these players because they believed," Ollie said on ESPN in his postgame interview. "They didn't go nowhere. They stayed loyal to this program. That's what it's all about."
It was nice of Ollie to deflect praise onto his players for sticking with a program that is ineligible for the postseason this year, but the significance of the Huskies' 66-62 victory over the Spartans is the statement it makes about Ollie's longterm prospects.
When UConn only gave Ollie a one-year contract in August even though the Huskies were undermanned due to a flurry of transfers and had no NCAA tournament to motivate them, his prospects of winning enough games to keep the job longterm appeared grim. One win certainly won't earn him a contract extension, but it showed isn't going to make it easy on the UConn administration to cut him loose in favor of someone more experienced.
What was most impressive about the Huskies' first game under Ollie was the way they won.
Gone was the in-fighting and apathy that plagued last year's underachieving team, which went from the preseason top five to barely scraping its way into the NCAA tournament only to get blown out in the first round by Iowa State. Instead the Huskies skidded across the floor for loose balls, defended with energy, played with poise down the stretch and congratulated each other after made baskets.
Most impressive for UConn was the backcourt of Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, both of whom will be counted on for leadership all season. Napier lit up Michigan State for 25 points and Boatright shook off a sprained ankle to contribute 13 points, four assists and five steals.
Where Michigan State was supposed to have a huge advantage was in the frontcourt, but it never materlialized. Whereas Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne combined for a mere 12 points and 13 rebounds, talented but enigmatic UConn sophomore Deandre Daniels had 12 points and eight rebounds by himself.
It shouldn't be a huge surprise to see UConn play with such passion and effort because the Huskies were simply mirroring their coach. Ollie parlayed impeccable character and a relentless work ethic into a long NBA career, playing 13 seasons despite going undrafted out of college and only once receiving a contract longer than one year.
When Ollie finished up his postgame interview Friday night, his players showed that they knew the significance of the win for him even if he didn't acknowledge it. They mobbed him and congratulated him on a milestone victory and a first step toward proving he's UConn's longterm coach.