"I'm happy with 10-2, but I'm not satisfied," coach Kevin Ollie said. "Those are two different words. I think we can give a lot more, and I'm going to push the guys and will them to give a lot more. They've been doing it. ... I want them to have the best attitude in America. And that's what we're going to strive for."
In past years, a 10-2 nonconference season would be par for the course at Storrs, just an appetizer for the rugged Big East schedule. But this season was different. With new coach Kevin Ollie under the lenses, any slip-up, especially an upset against a mid-major, could have been a significant setback. And many mid-majors are more competitive that in the past. It nearly happened in the Virgin Islands, when UConn came from 10 points back and eventually beat Quinnipiac in double-OT on Nov. 18.
But UConn defeated all comers to continue its legacy of dominance against such opponents. The high-majors posed challenges, and the Huskies responded with what is still the high point of the season, the 66-62 victory over Michigan State in Germany on Nov. 9. Losses to New Mexico, by six, and North Carolina State, by four, were nothing to be embarrassed about, and UConn finished the first phase with a 61-53 over Washington on Saturday night.
The Huskies spent a couple of weeks in the Top 25 after beating Michigan State. They could return to the rankings when those come out Monday, with the Big East season to begin against Marquette in Milwaukee on Tuesday night. Ollie went so far as to use the phrase "defy all odds" to describe what his team has done to date, starting three guards and a small forward, DeAndre Daniels, as power forward.
"These coaches are the reason we're 10-2," Shabazz Napier said. "They've kept us focused, they've held us together."
School officials, especially AD Warde Manuel, took note of that, and rewarded Ollie with a five-year contract before the game on Saturday.
"One thing nobody knew about Kevin was how he would be as the head coach," Manuel said. "What I saw in practice, what I saw before a game, and I saw it in adjustments he made at halftime, is that Kevin can coach. He can lead this team and put them in the right position on the court."
Certainly, any preseason predictions about these first 12 games would have maxed out at 10 wins. UConn lost nearly all its frontcourt after last season, with Andre Drummond going to the NBA and Alex Oriakhi and Roscoe Smith transferring.
Ollie has been calling on a "committee" of Tyler Olander, Enosch Wolf and Phil Nolan to fill the void up front, and though the Huskies have been outrebounded in 10 of 12 games, they have gotten enough rebounds to win, offsetting the lack of rebounding with solid pressure defense, limiting their turnovers and forcing opponent turnovers to ignite their fast break.
On Saturday, UConn outrebounded Washington, 40-36.
"Our rebounding," Ollie said Saturday, "pursuing the basketball, being tough — tough is a talent, and they were tough tonight. When Washington came back and got the game down to a couple possession game, they came out and played, they came out and got a good rebound, they came out and threw an elbow and played physical."
With no postseason to shoot for, the Huskies can measure success simply by how many wins they get. Marquette (8-4), their first Big East opponent, figures to be a tough one, especially on the road.
More important, Ollie can look to the long term, recruiting without the handicap of the seven-month contract and making decisions on how he wants to run his program. His new contract takes effect Tuesday, superseding the one he signed in September.
"Five years is what it says on paper," Ollie said. "But we're going to coach and recruit like we're going to be here 20, 25 years."
Daniels Stitched Up
DeAndre Daniels, who hit the floor hard late in the game on Saturday, missed much of practice on Sunday. He got four stitches to close the cut on his chin, but showed no signs of concussion. UConn expects him to play at Marquette. Daniels is averaging 10.0 points and 4.3 rebounds.