On one-year deal with these Huskies, Ollie's odds don't look good

by | College Basketball Insider
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STORRS, Conn. -- Kevin Ollie has been set up.

The former Connecticut Husky said all the right things Thursday afternoon when he stepped up to the podium and stole the show in what was billed as Jim Calhoun's retirement ceremony. The 39-year-old Ollie flashed his million-dollar smile, displayed sincerity when mentioning this is his "dream job" and thanked just about everyone except the janitor.

It was extremely impressive. I admit I'm rooting for Ollie. I've got to believe just about everyone is -- maybe even some fellow Big East coaches. Especially because this poor guy is walking into a trap.

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He won't admit it, because he's either too classy, too confident or just incredibly naive. Ollie does have plenty of experience overcoming the odds, so maybe this situation doesn't look quite so daunting to him. Remember, this is a guy who had to stave off point guard after point guard in his time as a player in Storrs. He wasn't drafted, but spent 13 seasons in the NBA -- with a dozen different teams. If there's anyone accustomed to instability, it's Ollie -- the master of the one-year, non-guaranteed deal.

But this one could be even more than Ollie is able to handle.

When he walked into new athletic director Warde Manuel's office on Wednesday, he was privately hoping to receive a multi-year deal as Calhoun's successor, one that would not only give him a measure of security -- but also allow the program a sense of stability it hasn't seen over the last couple of years while Calhoun battled numerous health issues and speculation heightened of his ultimate departure.

Instead, Manuel handed him a one-year deal worth $384,615 that is set to expire in April. Knowing Ollie, he thanked Manuel and walked out of the office with a huge grin on his face, appreciative for the opportunity.

Following the news conference, Manuel told me he has confidence in Ollie, but needs to evaluate him before he's prepared to hand the reigns of one of the elite programs in the country to a guy who has yet to call a timeout. That's understandable as Ollie has less than two years of college coaching experience, but this just isn't the time for a trial-run evaluation.

Just look at this roster. It's the UConn junior varsity squad. Sure, there are a couple of guys from the current group that could have played on some of the loaded teams over the last couple decades: Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright and maybe even DeAndre Daniels (based solely on potential). But most of these guys could easily be found on bottom-tier Big East rosters, maybe even in mid-major programs. No disrespect to Tyler Olander, but this year's starting center would have been a walk-on on just about every other Calhoun-coached Huskies squad.

Ollie has a terrific pedigree and tremendous references. I remember Kevin Durant heaping praise on him a couple of years ago shortly after he was hired by Calhoun in 2010. Ollie absolutely crushed it Thursday afternoon when he stood behind the podium. When his name pops up in NBA circles or among those who know him in the college basketball ranks, one word ultimately comes up: Class.

"[He has] as high a character and moral fiber than anyone I know," Calhoun said.

But it's going to take far more than just a terrific reputation to dig UConn out of the mess that Calhoun has left behind. It may not quite be Kelvin Sampson or Lute Olson-bad, but the current group has virtually no quality depth -- and the incoming recruits certainly aren't up to UConn standards, either. This is a program used to getting elite guys and then rolling the dice with second-tier players such as Hilton Armstrong and developing them. Now those projects, players such as commitment Kenton Facey, will come in and have to produce immediately due to the lack of talent already in the program.

This season won't just be a monumental challenge because of the dearth of bodies on the roster, either. Ollie also faces the task of having to motivate a bunch of college kids to play as a unit with no true prize -- because this team isn't eligible to play in the NCAA tournament. Napier, two years ago, was hoisting the national championship trophy. Now he'll play for pride -- and for his professional stock.

"There's a lot of opportunity," Manuel told me.

Yeah, for Ollie to fail.

I believe Ollie will someday be a star in this business. He has the pedigree, the work ethic and the knowledge. But he's just not prepared for what lies ahead, may not be quite ready -- and he has just 203 days to try to make sure Manuel doesn't embark on a national coaching search come April.

Personal agendas will almost certainly come into play with no postseason on the line. Expectations may not be what they once were, but this is still UConn. Ollie can't finish under .500 and expect Manuel and the administration to give him the permanent gig.

The recruiting has been so poor of late that UConn has added three kids from Germany: Niels Giffey, a solid piece; big man Enosch Wolf, who has played a grand total of 36 minutes over his first two seasons; and incoming freshman Leon Tolksdorf. It's so bad that Calhoun added a Holy Cross transfer; recent verbal commit Terrence Samuel chose UConn over a bunch of A-10 programs.

Donny Marshall entered UConn with Ollie back in 1991. He has the utmost confidence in his longtime friend and his abilities to get the Huskies back to what they were, but even he understands this isn't a fair shake.

"One year may be enough for them upstairs," Marshall said. "But it's not enough for the fans and the former players."

Marshall didn't mince words. He said if Manuel doesn't give Ollie more than just a trial run as Calhoun's successor, a large contingent of former players wouldn't support the program in the same way they have over the years.

That's where this will get interesting.

Manuel and Calhoun, according to sources, have waged their own battle recently over a successor. It's clear Calhoun wanted Ollie to be the guy long-term, but Manuel didn't back down. He was left with virtually no other option but to hand Ollie the team for this season due to the timing of Calhoun's retirement, but he still showed he has resolve by refusing to acquiesce to a long-term deal.

On the surface, everyone is happy.

But when April 4, 2013 rolls around, that's when it'll get interesting in Storrs.

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