(WTNH)–Kevin Ollie toured the state capitol with his team on Wednesday, smiling and shaking hands like a politician himself.
The charismatic coach and the remaining men’s basketball players were celebrated alongside the women’s basketball and football teams on Husky Day, an annual tradition since the early ’90s.
Like some of the politicians there, Ollie’s approval rating has seen better days.
UConn is coming off of its first losing season (16-17) in three decades, which would be bad enough in the old Big East but is even worse in a mediocre-at-best conference that saw its two best teams ousted before the Sweet 16.
Confidence has eroded. Fans are concerned. Patience is running thin.
The team will head into next season minus four players who figured to make an impact, two of whom were in line to be starters. Vance Jackson might one day be a first-round NBA Draft pick. Juwan Durham has that potential as well. Steven Enoch could find himself in the league one day, and top recruit Makai Ashton-Langford decided he’d have a better chance at ending up there with Ed Cooley.
None of those guys will be wearing UConn uniforms next season. But like any politician, Ollie is spinning his positive message.
“I’m very proud of the ones that are coming in, that’s the one thing I want to focus on, we got a great core group of guys that are coming back,” Ollie said. “We got a great recruiter coming in (Raphael Chillious) and I’m looking forward to getting everyone together in June.”
“We’re working hard for next season, building a culture,” he said. “Let’s build upon championships and hard work and being real. Those are the type of guys I want in my program.”
Star guard Jalen Adams, who made up the majority of UConn’s offense towards the end of last season, also tried to talk fans down.
“UConn is going to be UConn,” Adams told the Hartford Courant. “No one will forget the history that UConn has built. And then with Coach Ollie, me, Terry, Alterique, they’re going to want to come play with us. People are considering coming here. Hopefully they do, and things work out.”
Adams said he was surprised by some of the defections, telling the Courant that he “thought they all loved it here.”
“I wish those guys could be a part of what we’re building because I truly believe it’s something special, but those are all my brothers,” he said. “I support them 100 percent.”
Sophomore guard Christian Vital, who himself was rumored to be considering transferring, said he was disappointed in his fellow teammates’ decisions to leave.
Ollie said he doesn’t think the program is rebuilding, saying that they’re trying to find pieces around the “very strong core that we have.”
“Jalen is one of the best guards in the AAC and in America. Terry and Al and Mamadou are coming back with a chip on their shoulder. CV was one of our toughest players at the end of the season.”
The coach said he’s putting the onus on himself to find tough, smart players who want to be at UConn and who will fit in with what they’re trying to do.
There’s been no word on if the team will make any changes to the NBA-style offense it has been running, or if it will be more guard-oriented (with Adams, Gilbert and Vital as key pieces) or more friendly to big men (one of the reasons Enoch left).
If Ollie can get everyone on the same page and playing up to their potential, they’ll have a shot. There’s still plenty of talent on this team to be successful in the AAC.
If Adams can pull a Kemba Walker or Shabazz Napier and carry this group on his back, they will have a chance to be special. He’s a special player himself.
It’s a long way until October, but the work for next season has already started.
Just like at the Capitol, fans are hoping the politics in the locker room run a little more smoothly next season.