David Butler II-US PRESSWIRE
It's only one game, but it was a damn good one.
The old saying goes, you don't get a second chance to make a first impression.
Kevin Ollie doesn't need to worry about that. His first impression came across just fine.
I don't care how optimistic a Husky fan you are, no one saw Friday night coming.
UConn basketball is in a state of limbo right now, breaking in a new head coach with no previous experience, dealing with Soviet Russia-esque defection numbers from the program that occurred last year, and grappling with how to approach a season that has no post season pot of gold at the end.
They have a small front court, little depth, and little room for error.
Friday night was not suppose to happen.
But it did. And it was a lot of fun to watch.
It seems that everything which could have gone right, did. UConn started off hot from the floor, draining shot after shot to open up a 16-point lead. Most underdog wins happen when the inferior team opens up a wide lead and then holds off the eventual push. To a certain extent, that's what UConn did.
They also played harassing steal-centric defense, using speed to really disrupt MSU. How many times did a MSU point guard drive the lane, or front court player turn to post, just to find a pesky UConn guard literally nipping at their heels trying to get the ball? Even when it didn't result in a steal, it seemed to always result in a frustrated MSU player having to reset the offense.
And while I think we all expected Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright to be the team's most impressive one-two punch, UConn doesn't even sniff a win without DeAndre Daniels using his athleticism to block shots, rebound, and extend the MSU defense. And the always well-coifed Tyler Olander deserves credit for not getting pushed around on the inside nearly as badly as I feared might happen.
But what was most impressive for UConn was the last few minutes of the game.
By that time, any sniff of a 16 point lead had disappeared and all that remained was a game UConn trailed by two. Again, according to college basketball 101, this is where the better team pulls away and guts out a difficult win against a fiesty opponent.
I'll admit, I had already settled on that being the eventual outcome, contenting myself in the fact that, win or lose, the narrative out of the game would be the masterful job Ollie had done in keeping his UConn team in such a close contest against the 14th ranked team in the country.
Then Ryan Boatright hit a three. Then UConn buckled down on defense. Then Shabazz Napier hit clutch free throws, which he usually does.
Then UConn won.
It would have been easy for UConn to fold when MSU took that late lead, coming all the way back and putting such a large first half deficit completely behind them. MSU had momentum and, let's be honest, the better team. Yet, UConn had grit. UConn had determination. UConn willed themselves to a victory.
And that's a credit to Ollie.
Obviously, the reason UConn won Friday night was because of the players. Napier and Boatright were great, Daniels looked engaged and enthused, and the team got contributions from virtually everyone except freshman Omar Calhoun, who looked his age getting off only two shots in 25 minutes of work.
However, this game was about Ollie. With Jim Calhoun sitting only a few feet away from the bench he so ably patrolled for over two decades, even those of us staunchly behind Ollie and his hiring were anxiously waiting for first tip. What would this new team look like?
Well, they looked like...UConn.
They played smart, aggressive basketball. They were efficient on offense, harassing on defense, and they kept their poise. They looked like a team that expected themselves to win, even though no one else did.
That goes to preparation and confidence.
Look, there are caveats to this win. Pre-season rankings in college basketball are almost as worthless as they are in college football, so we really have no idea how good MSU really is. Perhaps they are a top-15 team in the country deserving of their ranking or, by the time March rolls around, they may be headed the same place UConn is - nowhere.
It may also be that MSU took UConn a little lightly, which cost them big, especially in the first half.
It's also possible that teams will need time to adjust to UConn. After all, no one has ever played a Kevin Ollie-led team. I don't think he was rewriting the basketball rule book or anything, just had his team playing smart, aggressive basketball, but coaches usually need time to scout and then adapt. What worked against MSU Friday night may not work against a team more prepared for it in February.
And while I am firmly and proudly in the Kevin Ollie camp, and wouldn't mind seeing him get a longer-term contract (let's be honest, most of us after Friday night's game were doing our best Michael Irvin imitation screaming "GIVE THAT MAN HIS MONEY") I understand why UConn AD Warde Manuel will probably still wait, at least for a little while. One game doesn't make anyone a great coach. It's still going to be interesting to see what this team looks like as the season is winding down and there's nothing to play for but pride. Right now it's easy to get up for these games. Will it be as easy come late February, off a bad loss against a Big East rival, to get the kids ready to play?
Yet, if there is one thing Friday night proved it's that Kevin Ollie can coach. We knew he could inspire. Hell, he inspired the shirts being sold on this site. We knew that, so far, he can retain and recruit players, and it's hard to imagine that won't improve next year when the cloud of a post season bans is lifted. What we didn't know was how he would do once the ball got tipped. Could he marry practice with X's and O's to pull out a win.
At least on Friday night, the answer was a resounding "yes."
I don't know what the future holds. I still expect a lot of rough nights this year and the loses to mount up. I would love to see UConn pull off one of the great middle-finger-to-the-NCAA seasons in history, winning the Big East and forcing everyone to evaluate why a group of hard working kids are being kept from their dream because of the "sins" of a previous classes. I'm not expecting it, however.
But, for one night, that dream seemed attainable. For one night, it seemed like UConn could play with anyone in the country.
For one night, it didn't seem like this season will be any different than the past ones. For one night, it seemed like good old UConn basketball.