PHILADELPHIA - Sometimes it takes one of your best friends adding some levity to a dire situation to make the matter more palatable.
That was the case for UConn men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie in what was a disastrous 2016-17 season.
Not long after starting forward Terry Larrier tore up his knee and starting guard Alterique Gilbert tore up his shoulder in the opening days of the season, one of Ollie’s mentors and friends stopped by for a visit.
Longtime UConn assistant and Central Connecticut State head coach Howie Dickenman offered a few words of wisdom, sprinkled with some biting humor.
“Coach D came to me like he was handcuffs,” Ollie said, putting his hands behind his back and laughing at the memory.
Ollie can chuckle at the thought now that the shackles have been removed and he has Larrier, Gilbert and big man Mamadou Diarra back at his disposal.
As much as Ollie appreciated Dickenman’s comfort, he disagreed with the premise.
“It wasn’t handcuffs. You see Aaron Rodgers get hurt (Sunday)? It’s part of the game. It’s part of the sport,” Ollie said. “You have to show your student-athletes how to be resilient. If I walk in with my head down and say ‘I don’t believe in you guys,’ what am I really teaching them?”
The Huskies suffered through a 16-17 season a year ago, their first losing season since Jim Calhoun’s first in Storrs 31 years ago. Ollie admits the loss of Gilbert, Larrier and Diarra weighed on him greatly.
“It hurt, don’t get me wrong,” Ollie said. “I had to deal with my emotions. I’m like ‘Why is this happening? And we’re 3,000 miles away.’ But it happens. You wake up that next morning and you get back to work.
“You orchestrate another plan,” Ollie continued. “I thought we did a great job. Our team played hard; nobody can say we didn’t play hard. At the end of the season, those last four games we had some concussions and people out, even with the 6-7 guys, they played hard.”
Part of the reason for the disappointment in UConn’s record from a year ago came because of the expectations. They’re annually high for UConn, of course, but last season at this time the Huskies were picked to finish second in the AAC. They ended up sixth.
This season there are few who expect UConn to excel, including the league’s coaches. UConn was picked to finish fifth in the standings this season.
“Because of what they went through last year, people forget about them,” said Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin, whose team was picked first.
The preseason rankings aren’t very important to Ollie, he swears.
“I really don’t care,” Ollie said. “I know they’re going to see it; all these guys are on social media. Hopefully they have their own motivations.
“I’m teaching guys how to jump to the ball right now. I’m not really concerned about who’s fifth, sixth or first.”
Gilbert, who because of his medical redshirt last season earned the unique distinction of being named preseason rookie of the year for the second year in a row, has higher expectations than finishing fifth in the AAC.
“We’re looking to be in the top 25 early. We’re just going to compete hard, try to win every game, and try to win our conference as well,” Gilbert said.
UConn plays its first exhibition Oct. 30 in Storrs against Division II Merrimack College. It opens up regular season play against Colgate Nov. 10.
The Huskies are adamant about getting off to a better start than last year - when despite playing with a healthy Larrier and Gilbert they managed to lose to both Wagner and Northeastern at home - but they know even without the handcuffs things won’t always go smoothly.
“There’s going to be some ups and downs early. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that there’s not,” Ollie said. “But I think we’re going to keep learning from our ups and downs and hopefully at the end of the season we’ll be a well-tuned machine.”
Ollie is happier than he was last season not only because he has more players to use during games, he also can practice at full strength again.
“We’ve got 13 guys out there capable of playing and we’re still waiting for Sid’s waiver,” Ollie said, referring to freshman wing Sidney Wilson.
Wilson has yet to be cleared by the NCAA and will likely have to sit out the upcoming season after transferring from St. John’s, but he’s making tremendous progress nonetheless Ollie says.
“That guy, from when he couldn’t make it through the first practice to now? He’s night and day,” Ollie said. “And imagine him keeping getting better, even if he has to sit out.”