STORRS – When Kevin Ollie was wearing the Connecticut uniform and playing point guard for the Huskies from 1991-95, there was no such thing as First Night or Midnight Madness at Gampel Pavilion. Former UConn coach Jim Calhoun was still successful in his strong resistance to the event.
Things have changed, as Ollie learned Friday night. He had experienced the UConn celebration of the season's first practice the past two years, of course - but as an assistant coach. About 7,000 fans showed up to witness what might be considered Ollie's first official act as Calhoun's successor. And that included sitting in the final seat of the autograph line, just like UConn women's coach Geno Auriemma, who was stationed directly behind Ollie.
"I lost count," Ollie said when asked how many UConn posters he signed.
Back in Ollie's day, there was no crowd to count when the Huskies held their first practice. It was just Calhoun, his whistle, lots of running, and a roster full of survivors at the end of the day.
"Coach [Calhoun] was like, ‘OK, on the baseline [for sprints],' and that's the only thing I remember," Ollie said. "Tonight, there are a lot of smiling faces. We're not winning or losing. It's just fun. . . . We go to work tomorrow morning."
Ollie steps into his classroom at 10 a.m. Saturday in old Guyer Gym. Close to four hours later, the Huskies will conclude that workout in Gampel Pavilion and they will have physical proof of what Ollie means when he says he wants UConn to be the "hardest working, best conditioned" team in the country.
After a big ovation from the crowd during introductions, that's what Ollie emphasized over and over.
"Our goal this year is to play hard," Ollie said. "Our goal is to make our opponents know we play hard each and every day. I want this team to be the best attitude team in America. Hopefully we establish that starting tomorrow."
Freshman guard Omar Calhoun won the slam dunk contest, upsetting defending champ Ryan Boatright with a relatively clean between-the-legs maneuver into his dunk. Boatright tried to throw one down after jumping over teammate Shabazz Napier, who was seated in a chair. But that failed and Boatright couldn't recover with a completed dunk before his 30 seconds were up.
Freshman Breanna Stewart joined in the slam dunk contest but missed on four tries. The crowd appreciated her effort and before she is done at UConn she may win one of these competitions. Sophomore Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis outscored senior Caroline Doty 20-16 in the three-point contest, which was dominated by the women's team.
But for UConn historians, the highlight of the night might have been a video message from Calhoun, who did not attend the event. He wished both teams luck in the upcoming season and essentially passed the baton to his former player.
"I can't follow in his shoes," Ollie said of Calhoun. "I'm just going to follow my own footsteps. I'm going to try to make these guys play hard, just like he did. We're going to go out there and continue the legacy.
"It's been a dream come true for me to come here and play here, play under him and now to come back for two years and coach under him. He's passing the baton to me. I don't feel like he's behind me. I feel like he's right beside me. We're running together in this race. This is his baby. I'm just taking care of it. We're going to continue to let it grow."
Ollie faces a difficult challenge with a contract that expires in April and a postseason ban from the NCAA that stems from UConn's past low scores on the Academic Progress Rate. UConn's roster was decimated in the offseason by the impact of that penalty.
Friday night, before the assembled crowed, Ollie took the microphone and told his 11 players they were the reason he stayed at his alma mater.
"They didn't transfer," Ollie said. "They stayed. A lot of other people transferred. They stayed. I had to come back."
MOORE JOINS STAFF
Ollie is building his staff through the UConn family. Ricky Moore, a guard on UConn's first national championship team in 1999, was named assistant director of basketball administration Friday. Moore, who had been an assistant at Dartmouth the past two, will work directly under Kevin Freeman, who moved up to director when Karl Hobbs was added to the coaching staff.
|Ricky Moore (UCONN ATHLETICS)|
"I'm ecstatic to be back," Moore said. "Great feeling. Coming in at this time, it's a sad time when [Calhoun] is leaving but the legacy has to live on. I think it's going to be exciting and anything I can do for the kids, I want them to feel free to come talk with me."
Moore's role is non-coaching. He said he wants to be part of the support system and help the players learn different things. Moore played professionally for 11 years in five countries – Austria, Ukraine, Sweden, Turkey and Germany.
"Having been here and gone through it, that speaks volumes," he said. "Kids should be able to go to a coach and know that he's had this experience. The kids shouldn't feel ‘this is impossible to do,' whether it's going to class or doing anything. We've been through it."
Ollie says Moore is a good fit for his new position.
"It's a great addition because of everything he stands for," Ollie said. "His unselfish play here, never looking for the limelight. He was the rock of the team. I want him to come and provide that for our team here. He's just a great guy.
"These are the kind of coaches I want our guys to be around. They can learn from him - just the way he's handled his own life and working hard. All the different things I talk about, he epitomizes that."
Kentan Facey and Terrence Samuel, UConn's two commits for 2013, were in the house. They are both New Yorkers and AAU teammates from the New York Rens. . . . The class of 2014 was represented by targets Winston Morgan, a 5-11 point guard from East Catholic High in Manchester, and Khadeem Carrington, a 6-1 guard from Bishop Loughlin in Brooklyn, N.Y. . . Small forward Brandon Austin of Philadelphia, may possibly visit UConn next weekend. Austin is at Providence this weekend . . . Highly touted power forward Noah Vonleh of Haverhill, Mass., is visiting Syracuse this weekend. . . . Bennie Boatwright, a 2015 wing player from Mission Hills, Calif., is on an unofficial visit to Storrs this weekend, according to Scout.com recruiting analyst Evan Daniels.