This is going to be the strangest year in UConn basketball history. I think that's a safe assumption to make, given the circumstances.
Maybe there was something unique that took place sometime in the 1970s, when no ones was paying attention, but since UConn burst onto the scene as a college basketball powerhouse, something like the 2012-2013 season has never taken place.
No Big East Tournament. No NCAA Tournament. No Hall of Fame coach holding the whistle. Nothing but pride for which to play. For the first time in the last three decades, UConn knows exactly when its season will end - early March, before the "real season" of college basketball even begins.
It's in the midst of this that Kevin Ollie must prove himself as a coach. In a normal year, the standard would already be set: lead the team to some impressive wins and credible runs in both the Big East and NCAA tourneys. Anything less would be enough to put his future in jeopardy. Yet, those carrots don't exist this year.
So, how do we judge Kevin Ollie?
UConn Athletic Director Warde Manuel made it clear he'll be watching closely. He'll be watching Ollie on the bench during games, at practice, and at meetings. Manuel will be assessing it all. What will it take for him to forgo a national search for a coach next year and a chance to entice a Shaka Smart or Brad Stevens? No one but he truly knows.
For the fans, however, it's a little more difficult. All we see are wins and losses. None off us are at practice, in meetings, or on the recruiting trail with Ollie. The only thing we have to go on is what we see game day.
But, if game day doesn't count as much as it normally does, how do we, the fans, determine whether Ollie deserves a long-term shot at the job?
It's going to be different for all of us. For me, I have a few things I want to see.
Maturation: Under Calhoun, UConn developed sort of that Duke reputation where, because of their name, they were always going to be ranked higher than perhaps their talent dictated. This year, I actually think they are more talented than people are giving them credit for. However, in order for UConn to be a competitive team, they need Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright, DeAndre Daniels, Niels Giffey, and the rest of the roster holdovers to mature as players. These are talented guys. Not top-tier talent but still talented enough. I want to see all of them take that next step. I want to see Napier making better decisions with the ball and not hoisting 35-foot fade away three pointers with 32 seconds on the clock. I want to see Boatright turn the corner ala Kemba Walker and go from all speed and no control to someone who plays with a purpose and a pace. I want to see Daniels and Giffey more assertive and more consistent with their outside jump shot.
UConn is going to be thin upfront and gone, for now, are the days when the Huskies blocked every shot the opponent put up, but they have a chance to be an exciting, up-tempo team. I want to see Ollie take these kids to the next level.
Big Wins: I would LOVE to see the Huskies to play so far above their heads that the narrative in late February is how one of the better teams in the nation is being kept out of the NCAA. I doubt that's going to happen. But I don't think it's too much to ask that UConn pull off some feisty upsets. If Syracuse is heading towards a big year, I want to see UConn run and trap them to a loss. If Louisville is looking like a national contender, I want to see UConn shock them one Saturday afternoon. There isn't a lot in the cards for which we can root, but being that team that upsets the apple cart would be huge.
Never Say Die: There's no tournament birth for which to play. UConn doesn't have to worry about a bubble. When you're talking about a bunch of teenagers, it's hard to imagine that won't sap some of their desire to play hard every single game. That's where Ollie needs to be the ultimate motivator. He needs to find a key to the entire season and to every game, to make sure that his kids are still the first ones on the floor for a loose ball, the first ones fighting for a rebound, and the last ones willing to give up on a game. I don't want to see blow out after blow out. I don't want to see UConn embarrassed. I don't want to watch a game where it's obvious that the Huskies are thinking about the trip back to Storrs before the final buzzer has sounded. UConn is going to lose some games this year, probably more than they have in a while. But it doesn't mean they have to lose because they have been out hustled.
February: The Huskies season will end in early March, but Ollie's most important stretch will be in February. Look, I expect that UConn will come out with a chip on its shoulder in November and December, especially against opponents that, even considering UConn's weakened state, should offer only a modicum of resistance. But when February rolls around, things will be different. By that time, the season will feel like a grind. The team will have undoubtedly faced some tough loses. The reality that tournament play isn't an option will begin to set in. If UConn was ever going to phone it in, it would be in February.
That's when I want to see UConn at its best. That's when Ollie needs to have his team playing their most aggressive. That's when I want to see a few of those upsets.
You can paint Ollie's situation in one of two ways. You can look at it and say that, without tournament play looming over him, the pressure is reduced. On the flip side, you can say that, with the diminished importance placed on wins this year, Ollie's future will be based on a lot of abstract observations, which could easily be interpreted a number of ways.
For me, Ollie needs to have this team playing better than anyone expects. He needs to keep them nationally relevant, even though they wont be playing in the biggest national tournament of all. He needs to show that he can squeeze the most out of an undersized, less talented roster. He needs to prove that the inspirational speeches he has given recently translates into motivation for his team.
I don't know if that will be enough for Manuel to give up the dream of a hot young coach with an impressive resume coming in to take over the program. I do know that it would be enough for me, as a fan, to feel comfortable with Ollie taking control of the bench for the foreseeable future.