"He's a senior, he's been through a lot of games," coach Kevin Ollie said, in the celebratory glow of the Huskies' win over Indiana on Friday night. "He's got a national championship ring on his finger. He's been through big games before."
Olander's four seasons at UConn have been nothing if not interesting. A starter for much of the first three, he mostly sat on the bench in the first six games of this season, but when the younger players who have taken his minutes got into foul trouble, he made his minutes count.
"You just have to be ready when your number is called," he said.
In the most intense game the Huskies (6-0) have played so far, against a top-notch opponent in the Hoosiers at Madison Square Garden, Olander was among the few big men left standing at the end. Indiana's freshman Noah Vonleh got into foul trouble in the opening minutes, and played only 10 minutes. On UConn's side, starter Phil Nolan, a sophomore, was limited to six minutes and freshman Amida Brimah to nine.
So Olander's No. 10 was called with 9:24 left in the first half, and he ended up playing 24 minutes, his most active game of the season, getting four rebounds, four points, one block and two steals — including a crucial steal with 1:03 left in the game as the Hoosiers were fighting to tie or take the lead. Olander stripped the ball from Devin Davis after one of the mad scrambles for a rebound that marked the Huskies' 59-58 win for the 2K Classic championship.
"Oh, Tyler was huge," Ollie said, "and that's what we want from our team. We want to be ready for the opportunity. He was ready."
Olander, 6 feet 10, 240 pounds, from E.O. Smith in Storrs, started 21 games as a freshman, UConn's national championship season, and played significant minutes as a sophomore. With the defection of several big men, Olander was thrust into a starting role as a junior, but with 4.3 points and 3.7 rebounds per game, was under-productive. He had been playing with a stress fracture in his foot, and he broke the foot in the next to last game.
Surgery and a long summer of rehab lay ahead, and Olander twice put himself in the wrong places at the wrong times, arrested in Florida during spring break for trespassing and in Connecticut in September for driving without a license. Ollie made it clear that Olander, when re-instated just before the season, was getting his last chance, and Ollie has closely monitored Olander's academic work and off-court commitments.
Olander has worked his way back into shape, and into the coach's good graces.
"I'm so proud of Tyler and how he's handled himself off the court," Ollie said Friday night, "and that's giving him the opportunity to do the different things he's doing on the court."
The emergence of Nolan and arrival of Brimah and freshman Kentan Facey have given the Huskies much more depth up front, but also a mix of experience levels and skill sets. The Huskies have fouls to give at that position, so opponents, such as Indiana, have felt the increase of fouls called this season more than UConn has so far.
And it allows Ollie to mix and match. Brimah is the shot blocker, for instance. Olander has been able to go back to using some of the skills that first attracted Jim Calhoun's staff four years ago. Despite his size, he is a perimeter and mid-range shooting threat, and he came off the bench to hit a killer three-pointer in the season-opening win against Maryland, also a one-point win, in which he played nine minutes and had two steals.
He played only two minutes against Yale, but scored 10 points in only seven minutes in the win over Detroit, five points and three rebounds in 11 minutes against Boston University and only three minutes against Boston College. The play may be sporadic, but Olander has accepted it and looks well-suited to it.
Indiana came in with impressive rebounding numbers, averaging 53 a game, 20 offensive, and Ollie set the goal of cutting those numbers in half. UConn held its own, "by committee," as the coach likes to say, with Olander, Brimah and Nolan splitting 39 minutes, with six rebounds and four blocks. Indiana had 35 rebounds, 11 offensive, to UConn's 33 and 10.
"That's obviously one of our big focus points," Olander said. "We said if we were going to win this game, we would have to rebound, we had to try and keep them off the boards. Otherwise, they're going just going to get second shots and have a bunch of offensive rebounds. Usually we try and push the tempo, but we just said that everyone crash the boards, get the offensive rebound and make a play in the half-court set."
UConn next plays Loyola (Md.) at the XL Center on Tuesday night. Will Olander be starting? Playing early? Late? Right now, he's an X-factor.
"Tyler is always going to be there for me," Ollie said. "[The Indiana game] was big-time for him and we want him to continue to work hard, and when we need him he's going to continue to come in and provide that spark – like we want everybody on that bench ready to do."
Huskies To Visit St. Elizabeth House
Ollie, the coaches and players will visit St. Elizabeth House in downtown Hartford on Monday afternoon, to serve dinner, deliver non-perishable foods and celebrate the holiday with residents in the transitional living program. There are 44 rooms available for previously homeless individuals to stay for up to two years as they address the issues that caused them to become homeless. The Huskies will arrive after their afternoon practice and stay about 90 minutes. ... Prince Ali, a 6-3 shooting guard from Pembroke Pines, Fla., and the Class of 2015, visited the UConn campus on Saturday. He has scholarship offers from a wide range of big-time schools. ... Shabazz Napier needs 16 assists to reach 500 for his career, and join Doron Sheffer, Tate George and Taliek Brown as the only Huskies with 1,000 points and 500 assists. ... Loyola (4-0) is off to its best start since 2005-2006.