— UConn got to work early on Thursday, starting practice at 8 a.m.
"Just wanted to get them on their feet," coach Kevin Ollie said, "and now that we're done, they've got the whole day in front of them. This is a good time, they have their final exams over with, they don't have that load on their minds."
There are, of course, many things on the minds of UConn players, coaches and fans as the Huskies play Fordham at the XL Center on Friday (7 p.m.). But the fall semester is, indeed, behind the players and, sources say, the academic picture is bright.
Could this be the check-point that athletic director Warde Manuel was waiting to pass before extending Ollie's contract beyond its current April 4 expiration date?
"I thought after the Michigan State game [Nov. 9] he was going to get the job," guard Shabazz Napier said, "and at other times, it seems like it's not going to happen. … No matter what we do on the court, it's not going to be in our hands."
By that, Napier said, he means, "It's not about winning. A lot of people don't care how we do on the court, but off the court, how we conduct ourselves in society, and how we do in class. I think our AD is one of those people. And everybody's doing great in class."
The Huskies (8-2) have been successful on the court, so far, in a season in which success on the court cannot be defined by championships, because they are ineligible for postseason play. By all accounts, they are playing hard and winning despite obvious shortcomings. The most glaring problem? They have been outrebounded in nine of 10 games.
The Big East season will bring stiffer challenges on the court, but if the Huskies did get through the fall semester in good academic standing, perhaps Manuel will decide that he has seen enough. Ollie said this week that talks have not begun.
"I care, because you'd like to have a contract," Ollie said. "But I am not losing [sleep] over it. These guys are giving me their all. … They're working and playing for me like I am going to be here forever, so I'm doing the same thing."
The one-season "audition" that Ollie was given on Sept. 13, when Jim Calhoun retired, has touched off debate coast to coast. It has undoubtedly hurt UConn in recruiting, and uncertainty over conference realignment is making it harder. The program is trying to get another guard and another frontcourt player for next season, and is zeroing in on point guard Kendall Smith from Antioch, Calif., who has told Coast 2 Coast Hoops that his list is down to UConn, UNLV and UCLA. UConn coaches will travel to see Smith this weekend. All the coaches have been to Miami to see Amida Brimah, a 6-foot-11 center, and there is optimism about landing him.
Stability, whenever it comes, will be a help. In the meantime, UConn continues to fight through this season, and Fordham (2-8) will be the last mid-major opponent. The Rams played six games, losing five, without their best player, Chris Gaston, 6-8, who averages 12.5 points and 7.8 rebounds. Gaston returned Dec. 15, and Fordham beat Princeton. Ollie said that Gaston, who was with Napier at tryouts for the Puerto Rico Olympic team last summer, could be an NBA prospect.
The Rams have several big frontcourt players, including 6-9 Ryan Canty, 6-8 freshmen Travion Leonard and 6-8 Ryan Rhoomes.
"I hope our players don't look at their record," Ollie said, "because they're a good team. I've seen that on film."