As UConn men's basketball continues to struggle, pressure mounting on Ollie

Published on Monday, 22 January 2018 22:53
Written by Neill Ostrout

Journal Inquirer

HARTFORD - Instead of a reminder of what it was like in the glory days of UConn basketball, all the current Huskies received was a refresher course in the gory present.

UConn lost to top-ranked Villanova 81-61 Saturday afternoon at the XL Center.

It’s the fifth time this season the Huskies have lost by 20 points or more. That hasn’t happened at UConn in 49 years.

The 1968-69 Huskies were the last group from Storrs to suffer that many blowouts in a single season.

Nearly a half-century of UConn basketball in between has produced innumerable highs, some authored and others orchestrated by Kevin Ollie.

UConn has won four national titles in the last 20 years, more than any other program in that span. But the Huskies’ reign as the kings of college basketball seem like ancient history to many at this point.

But Ollie insists there needn’t be any dirt thrown on top of the Huskies yet.

“We’re not buried,” the sixth-year UConn coach said after his team fell to 10-9 this season. “Everybody can write that but we’re not buried.”

It’s a story that was probably written and told the last time the Huskies looked so outclassed so often by their opponents.

The 1968-69 Huskies had a rough season under coach Burr Carlson.

Those blowout losses to Boston College, Utah, Maine, Long Island University, and Rhode Island - not to mention a 5-19 final record - lead to Carlson’s dismissal and the hiring of Dee Rowe.

A longtime advisor in the UConn athletic department following his coaching career, Rowe was in attendance at Saturday’s game, celebrating his 89th birthday in the process.

That was about the only thing Husky fans could celebrate.

There have already been calls for Ollie’s dismissal. A fan with a “Fire Ollie” sign Saturday was forced to surrender it by XL Center security.

The Huskies are in a quandary as far as that goes. Athletic Director David Benedict is only 13 months removed from firing another of the school’s marquee head coaches, and paying a large sum of money to the departed.

The Bob Diaco disaster in football was more clear cut, however.

Ollie is an alum, the hand-picked successor of the program’s godfather, Jim Calhoun, and he’s a mere four years removed from a national championship.

And not all of UConn’s struggles are tied directly to the head coach. The Huskies’ conference home has clearly hampered recruiting, and the player injuries UConn has been forced to deal with border on the impossible.

But it is become impossible to ignore the team’s shortcomings. Losing games happens, and some may even fall into the category of acceptable.

There is no shame in losing to the No. 1 team in the country. But falling absolutely flat, and not for the first, second or even third time in a season, is not.

The Huskies have lost three games by 24 or more points this season. That happened just four times over the previous 21 years.

“We’re young. We’re fighting each and every day. Of course I don’t want to be here where we’re 10-9. But at the end of the day I’m not going to give in, I’m not going to give up,” Ollie said. “I’m going to keep fighting each and every day.”

Ollie has pointed to a difficult travel schedule and the Huskies’ ability to bounce back on the tail end of long road trips. That’s played a small part in the blowouts, but it doesn’t have anything to do with this weekend’s flop.

“It comes down to playing hard. You can’t give up,” UConn guard Jalen Adams said of the blowout losses. “I think there were some points where we kind of put our heads down and Villanova showed no mercy. They kept going.”

Ollie loves a good metaphor. He loves the bad ones, too.

So as much as the fans have embraced his “10 toes in mantra” or his “we take the stairs” work ethic speech, those same people may bristle at his latest attempt to describe UConn’s situation.

“When they feel the ship is sinking, the rats jump off first. The scavengers jump off first. We’re not scavengers, we’re not rats. We’re staying right on the damn boat,” Ollie said.

It’s nice that Ollie is showing some fight, but this is an odd choice of words. Is he calling his fans who have stayed away from his team’s games rats? Is he openly admitting the Huskies are on a sinking ship?

Neither is a good look.

Villanova coach Jay Wright, whose return to his Big East roots was greeted by a sellout crowd, actually had a rosy outlook when asked about the Huskies.

“Their perimeter players are as good as anybody around. (Terry) Larrier, you could tell he wasn’t himself today. Then it puts a lot of pressure,” Wright said. “But the future is bright for that team. Those guards all come back. They’re young and they’re good. And then those young big guys are going to be good. It takes young big guys some time.”

Wright, almost always gracious in victory and defeat in his career, was being overly kind.

The reality is UConn needs help. Ollie admits as such, though slightly tongue-in-cheek.

“Program needs? We just have to keep fighting. I mean, we can go down the list of what we need. I wish I had a 7-footer, a 7-2 guy in there. I wish I had premier athletes, all shooters. But at the end of the day we’ve got heart,” Ollie said.

They seem to, yes, but it may not be enough to save Ollie’s job.

Posted in The Bristol Press, UConn on Monday, 22 January 2018 22:53. Updated: Monday, 22 January 2018 22:55.