We kick off our four-part series previewing the 2012-13 UConn men's basketball season with a look at the transition from Jim Calhoun to Kevin Ollie.
The world has changed greatly since basketball was invented on May 15, 1986, by a temperamental Irish fella named James A. Calhoun.
Communism is no more (COINCIDENCE?), the world is connected via a series of tubes, and where once the University of Connecticut basketball team played in front of mere thousands of shivering New Englanders, images of the Huskies' three national championship rings are now implanted into the brains of the unborn via microchip nationwide.
UConn owes everything to Jim Calhoun. A case can be made that the school's athletic prestige directly translated into the various campus improvements of the last 15 years, while also attracting a more academically competitive student body. For example, had UConn's men's and women's basketball teams not conquered the world in 2004, I might very well be sitting down at a computer word-smithing 5,000-word season previews about La Salle or Fordham or some shit.
We've known for a while now that Calhoun was getting ready to call it a career, but the actual announcement two months ago still left UConn fans with a numb feeling. I was born almost exactly a year after Calhoun was hired; for most of my friends and all of my UConn classmates, all we've ever known is Jim Calhoun yelling delightful expletives in public at young men in an attempt to get them to better put an orange ball inside a hoop which is also a metaphor for life and stuff.
Sept. 13, 2012 was a sadly inevitable, inevitably sad day, the moment we watched our embattled 70-year-old ass-kicking father figure, St. Jim the Patron Saint of Fuck You, limp into a hastily-assembled press conference at the cozy campus arena his success built and say goodbye.
There's a part of me, albeit a tiny part buried within the deepest depths of my UConn-loving heart, that feels just the slightest bit relieved.
The program lost its way in ensuring that its players were at least getting something out of their free education, other than on-the-job training. Calhoun was the boss, and that responsibility ultimately falls on him. The program thankfully corrected course over time, but the APR lapse cost them multiple scholarships and a chance to compete in the NCAA Tournament this season (even if that ruling was a little bit of ex post facto bullshit, but we're long past the point of no return on that particular logical front).
On the court, the Huskies have been something of a mixed bag recently. (I know, I know, Syracuse fans would kill to say "But for that national championship...". We're talking trends.) They haven't finished above .500 in Big East regular-season play since 2008-09, and have finished in the bottom half of the league more often (four times) than not (twice) since their last regular-season league title in 2006. Yes, Kemba Walker briefly made the malaise disappear with one of the greatest runs in the history of the sport - and Calhoun, in arguably his finest hour, deserves plenty of credit for coaching that ragtag group up for his third and final national championship. But then last year's team, which included two lottery picks, badly underachieved and looked listless in the process.
I'm not saying the pitchforks and torches should have been outside Calhoun's door. (He would have wrestled you for the pitchfork and set you on fire.) I'm not saying I don't mean every single damn word I wrote prior to "and yet." (I do, especially the curse words.) I'm not saying Jim Calhoun is a bad person for allowing UConn to slip in the silly APR. (I would kill myself if life were as boring and unimaginative as your average media narrative.)
What I am saying, is that maybe the time was right for a change
And now, standing on the precipice of Basketballmas 2012, with Calhoun still very much a part of the program, it feels like all those negatives of the last few years have evaporated thanks to JC's young, hip, savvy, real-talking protege.
There are obviously a lot of questions about Kevin Ollie. He's far from a sure thing, and he's taken over a program in turmoil. But he's said and done all the right things thus far.
Ollie won me over with his now-legendary sermon at the retirement presser (BUY THE SHIRT!). He brightened the hopes of UConn fans everywhere by keeping the Huskies involved with some big recruits, already landing a couple highly touted prospects for 2013-14, when normalcy will have returned to Storrs.
All that's left is, you know, coaching basketball.
On that front, I'm willing to trust in Calhoun's acumen for the game on this, the most second-most important hiring decision in UConn history. (Warde Manuel, evidently, is not, which may or may not turn out to be prudent.)
Now, beginning with tonight's game against Michigan State, Ollie will have to show his fans, his boss and his former mentor that he can live up to those powerful words.
No one expects the Huskies need to go unbeaten or finish first in the Big East. Actually, I'm not even sure what any of us are looking for, other than nebulous progress. Given that likely everybody on the team should be back for next season, we want UConn to be better on March 9 than they are on November 9. And we want some indication that this brief dip in the River Styx is just that.
In the past six months, the NCAA Tournament ban drove off Alex Oriakhi and Roscoe Smith, two flawed veterans who nonetheless provided a good amount of UConn's muscle the past two seasons. The NBA drew in Jeremy Lamb and Andre Drummond to swell the ranks of millionaire UConn alumni.
Left behind is a motley crew of star guards and, at every other position, role players. There's talent here for Ollie to work with, but it's difficult to set more concrete goals given the obvious limitations of the roster. All we can ask is for our neophyte coach to put them in positions to succeed, and hope the kids take care of the rest.
It's not exactly a rousing way to describe the opening chapter of the newest book of UConn basketball history, the book that I hope will be filled with new tales of UConn shocking and conquering the world, once the school finally commits to flipping the page.
But to be fair, as Kevin Ollie would probably note, there's also nothing exciting about climbing stairs.
Until you see the view from the top step.