It's been a heady week for UConn, with Jalen Adams and Terry Larrier making prestigious preseason watch lists, and the USA Today coaches' poll, out Thursday, ranking the Huskies at No. 16 for the start of the season.
But inside the walls of the Werth Family Center, Kevin Ollie's voice was reverberating, letting his players know there is much to be done, that nothing has yet been earned.
"We're not at that level yet," Ollie said after practice. "Hopefully, we can continue to work. I want to be the best chemistry team we can be, I want to be No. 1 in the poll in that. That's where I want to be. Sixteen is great, but it really doesn't mean anything yet. The ball hasn't been tossed up yet."
The preseason recognition is, of course, a sign of respect — that, power conference or no, UConn basketball maintains a place in the national conversation.
"It lets us know that people are paying attention," said Larrier, who made the 20-man watch list for the Julius Erving Award for small forwards. "They're watching. But we're not focused on winning awards, we're focused on coming in here and working to win games. If we do that, everybody's individual goals will happen."
Said Rodney Purvis: "It's cool when it comes across the bottom of the TV, to see your team ranked, but lose two games and your ranking is pretty much gone. I don't remember the last time the No.1 team in preseason won a national championship."
The Huskies will be relying on at least some of their five freshmen to play important roles right from the start of the season and, as Ollie laid out the schedule – home games on Nov. 11 against Wagner and Nov. 14 vs. Northeastern, then a trip to Los Angeles to play Loyola Marymount on Nov. 17, then off to Maui to play three games in three days – the sheer logistics, let alone the opponents, present a challenge.
"There's not going to be a lot of practice time," Ollie said, "so I'm really stressing execution right now, trying to find some different lineups and combinations. … It's never going the way I expect it — that's why I coach."
After wrapping up with reporters, Ollie went over for a lengthy one-on-one talk with freshman point guard Alterique Glbert, who has been fighting a stomach virus and turning over the ball too frequently. Purvis, a fifth year senior, has been in those shoes, too.
"When [Ollie is] really excited, practice is great," Purvis said. "We just feed off his energy. He's a great guy, he's just honest. He's going to tell you the truth. Maybe it's not what you want to hear, but that's part of growing and we've all got growing to do. He wants those guys to play, so he's going to make sure they're prepared."
Ollie also took a ride back in time to 1991, his freshman year at UConn, in his own way.
"I've been a freshman," he said. "It was all over the place and I wanted to go home. I stuck to it. I didn't park in my toughest tough times, I just drove through it. Maybe you drive one mile an hour, some of those guys drive 10, as long as you don't park and stand still."
Sophomore Jalen Adams, who made the Bob Cousy Award watch list for point guards, has been practicing, but is still slowed by a thigh bruise. Ollie had praise for senior Kentan Facey and sophomore Steven Enoch, who has an improved grasp of the system. Larrier had a bit of a lull, but, Ollie said, has bounced back with "two special days" of work. "We want guys having juice when they come in here," Ollie said.
Gilbert, Christian Vital, Vance Jackson, Juwan Durham and Mamadou Diarra are the freshman who must be worked in, and Ollie is working hard on them. The Huskies figure to get more props at American Athletic Conference media day Monday in Philadelphia.
"Every season is different," Ollie said. "I knew this was going to be a challenge, but it's a great opportunity. They're very, very coachable, too. It's not like they're coming in and their cup is already full and they know it all. These guys don't know it all, and they let you know that, they want to learn. As a coach, you feel better because you know they want to do it the right way. They just don't know how to do it yet."