A college basketball commentator with a national television network, who will remain nameless in this article, suggested recently that Kevin Ollie deserved his five-year contract extension but called the timing inappropriate. He said Connecticut athletic director Warde Manuel should have waited until the end of the season.
"Now the UConn players have no motivation," the analyst said. The implication was that the Huskies, who are ineligible for postseason play this season, were playing hard only in an effort to secure that extension for their coach, who originally was given a seven-month deal.
Guard Shabazz Napier, who said in October that the team would do anything it could to help Ollie, just laughed when told of the commentator's premise.
"We weren't playing for that," Napier said after UConn's victory over DePaul Tuesday. "We were playing to win. Coach Ollie wanted to prove the point that he's a good coach. Of course he wants the job. This is something he's been working for since he left here [as a player]. And it was a great deal that he got the job.
"We're playing for the Big East title, but also we're playing for next year. We're building our chemistry up for next year when we're able to get in the tournament."
The players who returned to UConn this season continue to marvel at the improved chemistry on this team.
"Everybody's not for themselves," Napier said. "It's kind of weird because we're not playing for a tournament. A lot of people might think the [players on this] team are just for themselves. But we just want to win."
One of the criticisms of Ollie's seven-month contract was the limitation it put on the recruiting effort. Ollie, asked about that during the Big East coaches' conference call with reporters Thursday, said the five-year extension he signed on Dec. 29 has improved the reception during recruiting.
"It's helping out," Ollie said. "Of course, it takes a question off the table that a lot of parents, a lot players, and whoever's involved in the recruitment have – is the coach going to be there? Now, I can say without a shadow of a doubt, I will be here – until they tell me I have to go. I think the recruits are going to buy into it and I'm looking forward to getting out on the road."
But right now the focus is on winning games and the Huskies (11-3, 1-1 Big East) are about to enter one of their most difficult stretches of the schedule. UConn travels to South Bend, Ind., Friday and will play at No. 17 Notre Dame Saturday. Then it is back home for the quick turnaround and a game Monday night against No. 3 Louisville, picked by many as the favorite to win the 2013 national championship. On Jan. 19, UConn plays at rival Pittsburgh. The Panthers just crushed No. 19 Georgetown 73-45.
"The schedule-makers didn't do us any favors," Ollie said. "But once again, we don't look at it as obstacles, we look at it as an opportunity to show America what we're made of."
Louisville coach Rick Pitino said he is "excited and happy" for Ollie, who had a tryout with the Boston Celtics in 1999 when Pitino was coach and general manager. Pitino cut Ollie, who had a 13-year NBA career, but he said he was always impressed with his effort and style.
"I think Kevin is the perfect segue into an APR situation," Pitino said, referring to the academic problems that resulted in UConn's postseason ban. "He's going to make it fun for his team, he's going to let them play an exciting style of play, he's going to keep them motivated on the future and he's going to get them to enjoy the present."
Pitino said he hasn't seen UConn since watching the Huskies beat Michigan State on TV and he won't start studying them until Saturday night, after the Cardinals play South Florida at the KFC Yum! Center.
"They've got an outstanding ballclub," Pitino said. "Great backcourt play; very quick in the open court. Their frontcourt is doing a good job.
"Kevin Ollie was about as perfect a choice for head coach as any school could have," Pitino said. "It was the perfect match. He's extremely bright, the players are going to love playing for him, and he's a fierce competitor. It's just a tremendous marriage. I knew it was going to happen that way."