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Elite Eight run comes at crucial, perfect time for Kevin Ollie, UConn

By Matt Norlander | College Basketball Writer

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NEW YORK -- Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie has rightfully received gobs of ballyhoo for getting the Huskies to an Elite Eight in just his second season -- and his first with postseason eligibility.

Some might forget, amid this push to a Final Four, that UConn wasn't a factor nationally a year ago. An APR punishment in Jim Calhoun's winter years resulted in a one-year postseason ban in Ollie's inaugural season.

The 2012-13 season wasn't a complete loss, however. UConn players attribute this season's run to last season's persistence.

"We were banned from a lot of things," Ollie said a couple of days ago. "We couldn't come here for the [Big East] tournament, but they weren't banned from loving and pushing and encouraging each other, and that's what it's all about."

Ollie is replacing one of the biggest figures in college basketball history. The 41-year-old has been impressive since the start, and you can see why Calhoun insisted, if not practically demanded, that his former player take over upon Calhoun's surprise retirement decision in September 2012. Rapid success for newbie head coaches is unusual in college sports. Somehow, Ollie has managed to make this Elite Eight showing not all that eyebrow-raising.

But no matter who you are, win three games -- just get to the NCAA Tournament and go 3-0, that's all -- and it'll change reputations and stature. Just ask Dayton's Archie Miller. Or Andy Enfield last year, after he briefly made Florida Gulf Coast into the most popular geographic-specific school in history. Even Kentucky now, which has wiped away most of the bad will from the past two months worth of dismay.

This Elite Eight drive for UConn shows a benefit that goes beyond typical March boons. Consider the location of its most recent win and what the school's doing after uncertain sagas: coaching transition and conference abandonment. UConn fans, who predictably packed Madison Square Garden for its 81-76 win over Iowa State on Friday night, will likely outnumber Michigan State fans at least three-to-one for the East Region final Sunday. Who couldn't help but notice the outrageous secondary ticket market prices UConn's -- and certainly Virginia's -- fan bases helped dictate. That gets plenty of college power brokers' attention.

It has been a serendipitous confluence for a school and program that was passed over by the Big Ten and ACC -- for football reasons -- when conference realignment redefined league borders, money structure and colloquial rivalries forever less than two years ago.

But the greater question for Ollie and UConn is how long he'll end up staying with the program amid the never-ending rat race. This is college sports and it's about winning money as much as it is about winning games, if not more so. No, you know what, definitely more so. Being relevant is almost is good as being rich, but the former can't match the latter. For UConn right now, the transition has remained as smooth and calm as possible, at least on the surface.

Kevin Ollie has gone 49-18 through his first two seasons as a head coach. (USATSI)
Kevin Ollie has gone 49-18 through his first two seasons as a head coach. (USATSI)

There's a lot on Ollie here. He has been tasked with keeping UConn as a top-10 national program -- an unfair burden. Basketball's not the reason for UConn's conference affiliation issues, if being in the AAC is even an issue at all for the Huskies at the moment.

All around, it's still an uncertain situation. UConn looks great right now. In the short-term, it has done as well as it possibly could do after things looked dire about 18 months ago.

"I didn't expect Jim to retire when he did," Ollie said.

For all the success and glare UConn has earned this season, the program still feels like it's in a state of transition. Ollie is winning with Calhoun's recruits, and we still don't know what kind of conference the AAC (with Louisville leaving for the ACC in 2014) will be two, three, five years from now.

Or if UConn will be affiliated with it.

"Those are things I can't control," Ollie said Saturday. "What I can control is our attitude, how we play together, are we playing with effort, are we playing with passion. And I knew the talent we had in our locker room. I knew what type of character we had in our locker room. ... I knew we were going to win and I knew we were going to stay.

"Like I said the last season, people didn't see us. We were just lapping everybody. We were just lapping them. We were in working while we waited, and that's what we need to do each and every day, we're going to work. And we just wanted last season we wanted teams to be like, why are they working so hard? Why are they playing so hard?

"Everybody was saying we weren't playing for nothing, and a lot of media outlets saying we weren't playing for nothing, but we were playing for something. We were playing for what's on our jersey, and that means a lot. If you step on our campus and the pride we have for UConn, it means a lot to put on that jersey."

Thinking in the bigger scope, how much can/will UConn continue to remain relevant with just basketball, and is it even realistic to ask Ollie to keep stride with Calhoun's final 20 years at the school? Of course it isn't. But he just might be able to pull it off if he opts to try.

The program is in its 11th Elite Eight. For Ollie to get here this fast is to be applauded. He was professionally handicapped by the NCAA and his former coach/current mentor when he got here. Yet not everybody transferred out. The school has been able to construct a state-of-the-art practice arena. Things look as good now for the Huskies as they have at almost any other point since the mid-'80s, when Calhoun arrived.

It's one of the most fascinating circumstances in college basketball. UConn could be set up to be the No. 1 school in its current conference. We just don't know if Ollie sees this as a long-term situation for him, or if the ACC would ever want to complete its standings page with an even 16 teams. The forecast for UConn appears as stable -- yet still undetermined -- as ever.

It'll be a circus Sunday afternoon. The Huskies, back in the Garden, thousands of fans believing it's their right to get to another Final Four. That's a powerful accomplishment for any school or coach to instill.

"That's what faith's all about," Ollie said. "You can't see it, you still gotta believe it."

You could say the same thing about the future.

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