There are many words I would use to describe the 2015-16 UConn men’s basketball team. Hungry is not one of them.
After UConn shocked the college basketball world in April 2014, Shabazz Napier took the microphone and dropped a bomb on the NCAA: “Ladies and gentlemen, you’re looking at the hungry Huskies, this is what happens when you ban us, last year, two years, we worked so hard for it, two years –”
they weren’t going anywhere.
Unfortunately, the momentum for the men’s program never carried on from Cowboys Stadium. UConn didn’t make the NCAA Tournament to defend their title. Through the first part of this season, UConn has played well at times but lacks that indefinable will to win that has defined UConn for 25 years.
This past week, UConn lost on a last-second shot to Temple and scuffled with a mediocre Memphis team Earlier in the year, they lost one-possession games to Syracuse and Gonzaga. Last year, it seemed to be an endless string of painful, nail-biting, gut-punching losses.
In Ollie’s first two years, it was the opposite. UConn finished many games, particularly during the 2014 title run, in spectacular fashion.
On one level, it appears UConn is in Year 2 of a Championship hangover. Sure, it’s only January and much can change in the next two months. Let’s hope it does, because the alternative is not good news for UConn.
The alternative is that Kevin Ollie is meant to be an NBA coach.
As UConn marched through the 2014 NCAA Tournament, I examined how Ollie tactically destroyed the competition. He was expertly massaging matchups, creating unique substation patterns and developing winning game plans against the very best. He outcoached, in succession, Fred Hoiberg, Tom Izzo, Billy Donovan and John Calipari.
There was one piece of the puzzle that Ollie did not have to focus on, and that was motivation. Many times, college coaches must motivate their players. As evidenced by Napier’s comment, UConn had been given all the motivation in the world from the NCAA. At no point during those two seasons did Ollie have to pump up his team as, win or lose, those Huskies played their asses off.
It was similar, in a way, to the role of an NBA coach. In the NBA, you don’t need to motivate your players. They are either motivated or they are not. The role of an NBA coach is to call players and tactically position them to succeed.
Post-title, UConn has frequently looked like a team lacking urgency. They can give off the vibe, particularly in the last-second loss to Temple, of an NBA team playing through the middle of a long road trip. It’s not a winning formula for college basketball.
Last year was dismissed as the usual year-after doldrums. There were no worries, as everyone saw the influx of talent coming to Storrs in 2015. Yet, as we enter conference play, UConn doesn’t feel like a team poised to make a deep March run.
When UConn played Maryland at Madison Square Garden, the place was rocking and it felt like a NCAA Tournament game. Except only Maryland showed up, and they ran UConn right off the floor. Maryland is a Final Four-quality team, but in terms of talent, they are not 20 points better than UConn – only a frantic late comeback made the final score look better for the Huskies.
The more I watch UConn under Kevin Ollie, the more I’m worried he is meant to coach an NBA team. This isn’t a knock – as a Wizards fan in DC, Ollie coaching Kevin Durant is a fairy tale. We all know he is a tremendous recruiter. But motivation is clearly lacking from his post-Napier teams and that starts at the top.
If the hungry Huskies don’t reappear before March, it may signal that Kevin Ollie is meant for brighter lights and richer players.