Only a few years ago, UConn gave Kevin Ollie a lucrative contract extension after he kept surfacing as a potential candidate for vacant NBA jobs.
Now the Huskies might wish Ollie had bolted considering the program’s abrupt and stunning descent since its 2014 national title run.
Saturday’s nationally televised home game against the nation’s No. 1 team served as a showcase for how far UConn has fallen. The Huskies trailed Villanova by 21 at halftime and by 31 midway through the second half before they salvaged a shred of pride with a late surge to make the 81-61 final score appear more respectable.
The lopsided outcome is an accurate reflection of the chasm that currently separates UConn from the nation’s elite. A program that boasts four national championships in the past two decades has missed the NCAA tournament two of the past three seasons and won’t enough sniff postseason contention this March.
UConn is 10-9 overall this season after Saturday’s loss and outside the nation’s top 150 teams in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings. The Huskies are 0-7 against top 50 opponents so far this season and required overtime just to slip past Monmouth and Columbia in non-league play.
Those struggles have raised the question whether Ollie’s job could be in jeopardy at the end of the season. UConn would owe him $600,000 if it fired him before his contract expires in 2021, but school administrators will have to at least consider the option with attendance dwindling and the program trending in the wrong direction.
That Ollie finds himself in this position is astonishing considering the promise the former NBA journeyman showed in his first two years as head coach.
When Ollie became interim coach in September 2012 after Jim Calhoun announced his retirement, he inherited a program ineligible for the postseason and a roster decimated by early departures. Four of the six best players from the previous year’s underachieving team had already either turned pro or transferred and the remaining two were also considering leaving.
That might not have been such a big deal had UConn committed to Ollie for a few years, but athletic director Warde Manuel slapped the interim tag on the new coach because he didn’t want to let Calhoun strong-arm him into banking on Ollie longterm. As a result, Ollie had to succeed right away against all odds if he was going to earn the full-time job.
To say the least, Ollie achieved that. He sold standout guards Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright on staying with the program, won 20 games during his debut season and then followed that up with a 32-win campaign capped by an unlikely NCAA tournament run to capture the program’s fourth national title.
“The biggest thing is that now we’ve made transition from team to program, Calhoun said the night of the title game as UConn players waded through ankle-deep confetti. “I’ve always thought we were there, but this really puts an exclamation point on it.”
The depths the program has sunk to since then aren’t all Ollie’s fault.
The demise of the old Big East has hurt UConn more than any other program since the Huskies failed to gain membership in another power conference and couldn’t join the new Big East without orphaning their fledgling football program. Fans and recruits accustomed to UConn facing the likes of Syracuse, Georgetown and Villanova have not been nearly as enthusiastic about annual matchups with Houston, South Florida and SMU.
Injuries and unexpected defections have also undercut Ollie.
It didn’t help that starting forward Steven Enoch left for Louisville last spring, that fellow big man Juwan Durham transferred to Notre Dame or that promising recruit Makai Ashton-Langford asked to be released from his letter of intent and later signed with Providence. Back-to-back season-ending injuries to heralded guard Alterique Gilbert have been an even more crippling blow.
But while Ollie has faced some challenges Calhoun did not, it’s certainly fair to point out that he has not been able to guide the program through adversity. The Huskies have typically been somewhere between adequate and excellent defensively throughout his tenure, but they’ve devolved into a haphazard, rudderless mess at the offensive end.
At times watching UConn play this year, you’d swear the only play Ollie draws up for his team to run is called “hero ball.” The Huskies are 344th in the nation in assists per made basket, 331st in 3-point shooting percentage and 305th in field goal percentage inside the arc. When they don’t manage to score in transition, they typically end up settling for forced threes early in the shot clock or contested layups through a thicket of defenders in the paint.
Never were UConn’s offensive woes more painfully obvious than in the first half Saturday when the Huskies managed just 18 points. They drew boos walking off the floor at halftime after scoring only two points in the final 6 1/2 minutes.
As this season has gone off the rails, Ollie has gotten more sensitive to criticism. He has locked his Twitter account, blocked followers who have made disparaging comments and spoken about the importance of staying off social media during the season.
The way things are going, the criticism may not let up anytime soon.
Once a hot candidate for even higher-profile jobs, Ollie is now on the hot seat.
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