(WTNH)–This week had to feel weird for Kevin Ollie.
The UConn head coach had his team in the NCAA Tournament bracket, but for the first time in his head coaching career, they weren’t sill playing. Ollie finally suffered a tournament loss to top-seeded Kansas last Saturday, blemishing his perfect record at 7-1.
We caught up with KO on Wednesday, to talk about everything from Jim Calhoun’s influence (he just shot commercials with Calhoun for Dove Men + Care), to which Huskies might declare for the NBA Draft, to how his No. 3 recruiting class will help the team next year.
Here’s what he had to say:
SE: What’d you talk about with coach while you guys were shooting that commercial?
We talked about everything under the sun. It was not even a commercial, the time just went on and went on. It’s something that we always talk about, off the court, just the bond of real strength that me and him have through our relationship.
SE: When he retired, coach Calhoun said he’d still be involved with the team. How big of a role does he have on a day-to-day basis?
OLLIE: He still has his office there in the Champions Center that’s right on campus. I always give him an opportunity to come and watch practice, and he always gives me his feedback. He’s off playing golf a little bit, he’s enjoying retirement life. So he’s not in the office a lot.
He’s really enjoying his grandkids, his family time, he has a place down in Hilton Head (SC), so he spends a lot of time down there in the summer time. He’s not around often, of course you know, he’s working at ESPN also, but when he does have the time, he always comes in and really gives me some great gold nuggets that he has, just through his experience in 40 years of being a head coach.
The day before every game, we have a tradition where we call each other, and he might say something, or he’ll just say, I love you. And I think that’s the relationship we have.
SE: Is there one story you have, or one thing about coach that really pushed you to become great?
OLLIE: He always labeled me a hard worker. And when you hear that all the time, that’s who you become. You become that hard worker. When somebody says that all the time, you become that hard worker. He always told me, you’re the hardest working player I’ve ever been around.
He just really gave me strength that was even beyond things that I believed that I had. I think that’s the greatest thing about coach, his motivation skills. He gave us a goal that we thought was not attainable, but he pushed us towards those goals, and through the shortcomings that we had, we’d go back to coach and he would always be there for us. He always had those words of comfort, and that’s what we love about him the most.
SE: Do you try and do the same thing with your kids?
OLLIE: Absolutely. You don’t want them to settle for mediocrity. You don’t want them to settle for ‘just good,’ because I think good is the enemy of great. We want them to have that greatness inside of them, and you know, every kid is different. A lot of kids that we deal with have trust issues. Especially from a man standpoint, some of them come from single-parent homes. You have to deal with that.
And just everything, there’s a plethora of things that, emotionally, these kids have to go through that we didn’t have to go through. We didn’t have social media, back then. Now if you make any mistake on the basketball court, 3 million people will see it. That’s the social media affect. And that’s a burden on a young kid. The lessons that I learned from coach Calhoun, it breathes into them through my voice, my vision and through my experience.
SE: Any news on anyone declaring for the NBA Draft, especially with the new rule (which allows underclassmen to return if they don’t sign with an agent)?
OLLIE: There’s always that possibility. We’re still having exit meetings, but I know a couple of the guys will probably put their names into that hat, and you know, I just hope everybody that does doesn’t sign with an agent right away, so it gives them the flexibility of going back.
But I like the rule because it really gives them an opportunity to go against the best. It gives them the opportunity to sit down with a general manager after a workout, and really get a true assessment of where they’re at.
Hopefully our guys will take advantage of it, and hopefully they make the right decision for themselves and their family. And if that’s to come back to UConn, we’ll welcome them back with open arms, and if that’s going to the NBA, we’ll be right there to support them.
SE: So, looking ahead to next year, what’s the one thing that you guys have to improve on as a team to be more successful?
OLLIE: Our offensive execution. I thought we had some inconsistent shooting. We definitely want to improve on that. We won 25 games, we played great basketball, we were third in the country in defensive field goal percentage, but we want to score a little bit more. We did a great job on the free throw line, we was No. 1 in the nation shooting free throws, but we were I think in the 300’s in getting to the free throw line. So, you know, we shoot so well, we want to get there even more.
And you know, of course, you always want to rebound the basketball better. And I think we can improve on that immensely. And I think that’s going to give us a great opportunity, with the freshman that we got coming in and the upperclassmen that we have coming back, those two things together, getting Alterique Gilbert, a McDonald’s All-American point guard is going to really help our team also.
SE: For UConn fans that haven’t seen them play, what do each of the incoming freshmen bring to the team next year?
OLLIE: Well, Alterique is the ultimate leader, ultimate winner. He’s won I think his third state championship a couple of weeks ago, so he’s an ultimate winner. A great leader on and off the basketball court, a great young man, that’s going to give us that point guard leadership, him and Jalen, which, when we won our championships, we had that two-point guard attack. And I think we’re going to get back to that, when we had Shabazz and Kemba, we had Ryan Boatright and Shabazz, we’ll get back to that attack with those two guys.
Vance Jackson is a prolific shooter, out of Los Angeles. But he can do so many other things. He’s 6-9, he can post up, underrated passer. So he’s going to bring a great dimension to our team, especially our spacing, where he can stretch the floor. He can shoot the ball out to 35 feet on threes. He’s just a great shooter.
Mamadou Diarra is coming in giving us that rugged four that we need. Just dunking the ball, rebounding the basketball, and still honing his skills. I think he’s going to give us a great boost.
We have a versatile, four, slash 3 man, slash 2 man, slash 5 man in Juwan Durham. He’s coming off of two torn ACL’s that kind of set him back this past year, but I think he’s going to be ready to play come November, and we’re looking forward to having him in the fold.
A lot of people don’t even know about (VCU transfer) Terry Larrier. They don’t even put him in that class, and I’d definitely put him in that class.
SE: What does Terry bring?
OLLIE: He’s 6-9 and can shoot the basketball, he’s an athlete, he can run the court. I mean, he’s the prototypical pro that they’re looking for. Just the length that he’s going to bring to the court for us. And the toughness he’s going to bring, an inner-city Bronx kid, so he has that toughness that we love, especially through the connections that we have in New York. So it’s going to be a welcome sight, and I think a lot of people at UConn and the country is going to realty love Terry Larrier.
SE: So now that you guys have been knocked out of the NCAA Tournament, is it hard to watch, or will you still sit down and watch it?
OLLIE: That’s a hard question. Yeah, man, sometimes it’s hard to watch. (Laughs) I’m not gonna lie. Sometimes it’s hard to watch. But at the end of the day, I have some great friends that are head coaches that are doing a wonderful job still in the tournament. I’m going to go down to the Final Four, and root those guys on.
It’s definitely hard to watch, but of course, I have to watch it. I love basketball, I love just the uncertainty of it, because it’s a one-game elimination and it’s not like a seven-game series, where most of the time the best team wins. You just have to be the best team that day, so that brings a lot of uncertainty and that brings March Madness that we all love.