Hoops and Combat Boots

It was less than two months ago that Kevin Ollie learned he would be the head basketball coach at Connecticut this season. It was a bit of a surprise, to say the least.

At that moment, when Hall of Famer Jim Calhoun retired and Ollie was given until April to prove himself, Ollie probably gave no thought to making his regular-season debut in combat boots.

The Ollie Era officially begins Friday night in Germany, where the Huskies take on No. 14 Michigan State in the Armed Forces Classic at Ramstein Air Base. It seems like more than a game because it is a special event aimed at paying tribute to the U.S military troops. That's why Ollie, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo and their assistants will be wearing Armed Forces polos – and, yes, combat boots.

Ollie and the Huskies certainly will never forget this moment. At the same time, there is the business of the basketball game. After two exhibition games against Division 2 teams, the Huskies have to pull themselves together for a big challenge against a team that is thinking about a return to the Final Four.

"I'm excited," Ollie said of the regular season opener. "I'm excited for this team, not for myself. Hopefully we can go out and execute the things we've been trying to do in practice."

Boots worn at last year's Carrier Classic by UNC coach Roy Williams (US PRESSWIRE)

This is just one game, but the Huskies will learn a great deal about themselves against a team as talented as Michigan State. Izzo's squad is led by junior point guard Keith Appling, who won't be bothered one bit by UConn's desire to play a transition game. And inside, senior center Derrick Nix has extensive experience in big games.

"They're always a sneaky running team," Ollie said. "Everybody says they are a grind it out team, rebounding team, defensive team. But they've got some Ferraris back there that get out and run."

Ollie continues to put the emphasis on rebounding and working hard. That will get a test against the Spartans. The Huskies do not have great size but Tyler Olander and DeAndre Daniels are showing some chemistry along the front line. Daniels is learning his new role at power forward and grabbed 23 rebounds in the two exhibition games.

Can Daniels continue to rebound that way against big-time competition?

Can UConn function with a three-guard lineup of Ryan Boatright, Shabazz Napier and freshman Omar Calhoun?

Can Enosch Wolf and Phil Nolan make contributions inside and give Olander and Daniels time to rest?

Can R.J. Evans and Neils Giffey provide valuable minutes off the bench?

All of those questions will take time to answer. Calhoun has been an enormous bright spot in the preseason, scoring 44 points in two games and making 14 of 23 shots, including 8 of 12 from three-point range.

Calhoun has confidence in his shot. So far his transition to the college game has been positive and smooth.

"He's working hard," Ollie said. "Of course he's making shots, but he's doing all the small things. His hard work is paying off, so hopefully he continues to do that throughout our season."

Playing against an aggressive, tough defense will provide a gauge for Calhoun and his growth, but he said he's ready for the challenge.

"Coming from New York," he said, "I'm always playing physical basketball. Going into a game that's going to be physical, it's right up my alley."

The sidebar to tonight's game will be the opportunity for Giffey, Wolf and Leon Tolksdorf to play on their native soil in Germany. It's a rare treat that has put a smile on the faces of all three.

"I'm very happy for them," Ollie said. "They fit in perfect on our team. We don't have any problems with them. They play hard, they play aggressive, they play together and they go ou there and give us those things you can't coach."

Said Evans: "This is all about taking care of business. Michigan State is a tough team with veteran players. We want to go out and show them we have good players too."

Ollie's evaluation period has begun too. What happens between now and March 9 (UConn's final game of the season) will determine if he gets the opportunity to stay on.

"We're all upset that he only got seven months," Napier said. "We felt he should have got more than that. But at the end of the day, sometimes I guess you have to prove yourself, and that's what is going to happen."

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