Maybe It's Time for Kevin Ollie to Get That Long-Term Deal
The loss of another big-time recruit (Brandon Austin ... to Providence, of all places), coupled with the early-season success and rave reviews for Kevin Ollie begs the question of whether it's time Warde Manuel decides to give Ollie a long-term deal.
Ask anyone from Rick Pitino, Jim Boeheim and Rick Barnes to people close to the UConn program to the vast majority of college basketball media, they'll tell you that Ollie's lack of a long-term commitment (he's only signed through March) is a HUGE impediment to the Huskies on the recruiting trail. Noah Vonleh and Austin are two recent examples.
I asked Manuel at the Paradise Jam Monday night whether he worried that Ollie's lack of a long-term contract is hurting the team recruiting-wise.
"I want us to be in the best position," Manuel said, "but as I've said before, you never know what hurts you in recruiting. Jim Calhoun, in his prime, lost great recruits. Kevin is going to win a lot in the recruiting wars, and he's going to lose some, whether he's been there one year, 10 years or 20 years ... I've been around quite a bit with some great coaches who have lost some kids, and you never truly know. You put your best foot forward, and the student-athlete makes the choice to go somewhere else for a different reason."
Manuel indicated he'd like to see Ollie in Big East competition before he decides on his future, and also said he'd like to make a decision before the season ends on March 9.
"Whether I make it before then or not remains to be seen," he added. "I don't have a timetable."
I may be in the minority on this, but I understand Manuel's position. For one, he was put in a tough spot by Calhoun's abrupt retirement on Sept. 13, essentially forcing him to hire Ollie. For all the praise Ollie got at the time from sources all around the basketball world, it was fair for Manuel to be a bit cautious about giving a long-term deal to someone who'd never coached a game of basketball in his life, at any level. And, he had to show that whomever the new long-term coach at UConn was going to be was going to be his decision, not something thrust upon him by Calhoun's retirement.
And if that was the case two months ago, it's hard to say that things should change too much since then. As impressive as Ollie has looked on the sidelines and in practice (like he's been doing this for four decades, not four games); as impressive as the win over Michigan State was, along with a good showing by a fatigued team in St. Thomas, getting to the championship game; five games would seem to be a little early to make a rash, long-term decision.
But maybe Manuel should. The Huskies are getting killed in recruiting. There's no excuse losing a recruit to PC, even if the Friars seem to be on the rise and Ed Cooley is as likable a coach as any. And, well ... Ollie has certainly done the job to this point, no matter how early it's been.
Back on Sept. 13, here's what Manuel said he'll be looking for from Ollie this season:
“I’m looking to see how he is on the sidelines, how he handles decision-making, how he does substitutions and things that are normal in the course of a game,” he said. “How does he handle a loss with a team, how does he motivate them the next day to come back and play. How's he handling practice and the staff and all the things that come with being a head coach at this level. I want to see it, because I can’t turn to somebody and say, ‘Hey, how did he do? How was he as a head coach?’ I need to see that. It really, truly is a long-term plan. I want to see where Kevin is before I extend that long-term contract. But I love Kevin, I’ve enjoyed working with him the past six months. I see why Jim believes in him so much, but I want to see it myself before I would make that determination.”
Let's break it down:
"I'm looking to see how he is on the sidelines" -- Ollie appears in complete control. Sometimes the game speeds up young coaches, but that hasn't happened with him. And he's got a stellar staff of Glen Miller, Karl Hobbs and George Blaney behind him, as well.
Manuel admitted as much Monday, saying, "You don't just roll the ball out and say, 'Shabazz, Ryan, go score.' He's designing the plays, and he and the staff are impressive to watch."
"How he handles decision-making, how he does substitutions ..." --- Again, all aces. Ollie lets guys play through their mistakes, by and large (unlike Calhoun), and, in fact, will ride the hot hand (i.e., Enosch Wolf vs. Wake Forest) even if it means a starter rides the pine for a longer-than-expected time. Ollie seems to use his timeouts rather judiciously, but that's not a major criticism.
"How does he handle a loss with a team, how does he motivate them the next day to come back and play ..." --- Well, we'll find out for sure on Sunday against Stony Brook, on the heels of the Huskies' first loss of the season Monday to New Mexico. But so far under Ollie, UConn has shown it can handle prosperity (the Huskies could have laid an egg against Vermont after flying home on the wings of the Michigan State victory, but instead played well), as well as in-game adversity (they were down 10 with less than five minutes to play against Quinnipiac, only to win in double OT).
"How he's handling practice and the staff and all the things that come with being a head coach at this level ..." --- Ollie has taken some of the ideals he learned under Calhoun and put his own personal brand on it, from techniques he learned from 13 years in the NBA (bringing in a sports psychologist, fostering better team communication, etc.) and different basketball philosophies. He's been terrific thus far. Manuel even admitted such Monday night.
"He's been unbelievable," the AD said. "I'm very, very proud. He's doing a terrific job in all aspects. He's a super guy doing a great job. He couldn't have had a better four games, a better script in his first four games. I'm proud of him, proud of the team and the effort they're putting forth. What you see on the court, he's been talking to the student-athletes about. It's a great thing to see."
So maybe it's time for that long-term contract, before the Huskies get hurt on the recruiting trail any more than they already have been.