Kevin Ollie’s struggles have been discussed the entire season by UConn fans, and with good reason. The team is currently 9-7 with few good wins—and multiple bad losses—one year after a sub-.500 season. In many ways, the program has regressed under his tenure, even though it may not be all his fault, and things may finally be coming to a breaking point between Ollie and the athletic office.
But last night, Ollie had his best individual coaching performance in quite some time, drawing up a strong gameplan that counteracted a reputable Central Florida defense and maximized the Huskies’ chances of winning—an advantage the players made the most of, leading the entire way through a 62-53 win.
There were three main components to Ollie’s gameplan in the victory.
Ollie was faced with several issues here: Eric Cobb is still serving his indefinite suspension, Isaiah Whaley injured his ankle early in the first half (though he would return), and most of the other big men were in foul trouble, as they are prone to doing. Dealing with a thin rotation, and less-than-ideal height mismatches against 7’6” UCF center Tacko Fall, Ollie played to his players’ strengths and picked the right guys for the situations, reversing a criticism that has followed him throughout the season.
When Fall was in, Ollie utilized freshman Josh Carlton, who has shown strong defensive ability already, as his combination of size (6-9, 242) and skill was the right primary matchup to keep Fall away from the rim and easy passes. Carlton got into foul trouble early (when Whaley injured his ankle), and he was forced to go to the two backups—Kwintin Williams and David Onuorah. For a variety of reasons, this is a bad frontcourt duo, and Ollie didn’t go to it for the rest of the game.
Realizing Onuorah’s struggle in giving up nine inches to his matchup, and Williams’ struggles defensively, Ollie rotated in Mamadou Diarra, who made an instant improvement on the bench unit, and Tyler Polley, whose thin frame meant he couldn’t guard the strong Fall, but could still play good interior defense, helping snuff out multiple drives off the ball.
Whaley, thankfully not seriously injured, blocked several shots in help defense, and Carlton managed his foul situation well to play tough defense on whoever he matched up with. Carlton especially did a great job, as his positioning prevented the ball from getting to Fall on the inside. Taking away the Knights’ one reliable offensive option with BJ Tyson missing (Fall post-ups) led to Johnny Dawkins panicking in the second half, keeping Fall off the floor for long stretches, which allowed UConn to get easier baskets than they would have with Fall in the game.
Ollie picked the right time to finally have confidence in UConn’s most productive two big men, and although his reluctance to give these two starters’ minutes has hindered the Huskies at times, it seems he’s finally figured out his young players’ strengths.
To be fair, this one took a little while to develop. Central Florida has one of the best defenses in the country, and the key to that defense is interior play; they hold opponents to an incredibly low .401 shooting percentage from inside the arc. Meanwhile, they’re only average at defending the three, as their .327 opponent 3FG% can mostly be attributed to a weak non-conference schedule.
You’d think that would mean UConn would look for open shots from deep, right? Well, it didn’t in the first half. The Huskies didn’t take a three until halfway through the first half, and didn’t make one until there were fewer than two minutes before halftime. It even made sense; UConn has struggled with the three this season, especially recently, and their biggest scorers’ most reliable shots are all inside the arc.
Credit to Kevin Ollie for adjusting at halftime. Not only did the team actively start seeking out looks from three, they even made most of them. Factoring out two desperation heaves to prevent shot clock violations, the team shot 40% from distance. Perhaps an easy adjustment, yes, but it took guts to have confidence in this team reliably making three-pointers after weeks of struggling with the shot.
Attacking the Rim
Tacko Fall is an imposing figure in more ways than one. Not only is his frame nearly impossible to shoot over, he can also singlehandedly transform a good college defense into an elite college defense. Given that the team rarely fouls, this gives him leeway to attack shots that other rim protectors might not have. It’s not generally a good idea to take him head-on.
Most teams don’t do that, of course, and Kevin Ollie didn’t instruct his players any differently. But where other teams have played almost tentatively against Central Florida, UConn got the Central Florida defense out of the simple system they’re used to playing and forced them out of position, leading to some easy baskets and many trips to the free throw line.
UConn’s 21 free throw attempts were the most that Central Florida has given up since a hard-fought win at Alabama. Even better, the Huskies made 20 of them. It may shock some to know that UConn is one of the best free-throw shooting teams in the country, but it’s true. Taking advantage of that, they actively sought out fouls, particularly Antwoine Anderson (who shoots .919 from the strip), who somehow was relatively unrewarded for his effort.
Meanwhile, the set plays revolved around bringing Fall out of the paint. In one important sequence late in the second half, Jalen Adams penetrated to the elbow after a switch, getting by his man to create space in the interior. With Fall being the only man between Adams and the basket, he stepped up to Adams, as did the Knight guarding Mamadou Diarra in the corner. This is a mismatch the UCF defense isn’t typically used to—not only do they minimize penetration, the multiple rotation caused a breakdown that resulted in two men guarding the ballhandler and nobody guarding the basket. Diarra slipped down the baseline as Adams dished to him for the easy bucket.
That’s just one example, but it’s emblematic of the type of play Ollie emphasized in his game plan. Central Florida was totally unprepared for the UConn reaction to their established strategies, and Ollie caught them off guard. It depended on quality play from the roster as well, as all coaching does, but the combination of the two led to a decisive and needed victory for the Huskies.