ST. THOMAS, U.S. VIRGIN ISLANDS — Warde Manuel’s Thanksgiving vacation was supposed to go something like this: Arrive at St. Thomas Tuesday, hang out for a few days, watch the UConn women cruise through the Paradise Jam bracket by 60 points per game and head back to good old Storrs.
With UConn considered for the vacancy left by Maryland in the ACC, his week got a tad busier. It started a day early, too.
“After (the win over Quinnipiac), I wanted to come see them in person,” Manuel said. “I changed my plans right as that game ended.”
What Manuel saw Monday night was Kevin Ollie’s first loss, a 66-60 defeat to New Mexico in the Paradise Jam championship. What he’s seen from Ollie this season has been, as he put it, “unbelievable.”
Two exhibitions and five regular season games is a large enough sample size to start making evaluations, and Manuel — a guy who plays it pretty close to the vest — openly disclosed those thoughts. Put it this way: If Ollie was a fourth-grader receiving his quarterly progress report, he’d have a “check++” from Mr. Manuel. He might have even gotten a smiley face, too.
And the comments section (space permitting) would read: “I’m very, very proud,” Manuel said. “I’m very pleased with what I see….For the first four games, you couldn’t have written a better script for him. I’m proud of him.”
Number Five didn’t go quite as well, but nobody should be shocked by UConn’s loss to New Mexico. The Huskies will compete in many down-to-the wire games this year, and they’re not going to win all of them. They’re a fringe top 25 team; so is New Mexico. If these schools play 10 times, it’s probably a 5-5 split.
These are the truths about the Huskies five games in: They have an All-American candidate in Shabazz Napier, who truly is doing a Kemba Walker impression. They have a foul-prone frontcourt that has been consistently outplayed, Monday night being no exception: Tyler Olander, Enosch Wolf and Phil Nolan combined for two rebounds. And Kevin Ollie is a head coach, not a magician. He can’t wave his magic wand and turn Olander into Emeka Okafor. He can’t facilitate a body swap between Phil Nolan and Alex Oriakhi.
What he can do is get the most from what he has, and even after Monday’s loss, a game in which UConn clawed back from a 10-point deficit (again), you’d be crazy to say he hasn’t succeeded in that regard. The Huskies have traveled halfway across the globe in the season’s first few weeks, and they’ve played with energy and enthusiasm that reflects their head coach.
“The guys are responding to him,” Manuel said. “It’s a good thing because he’s different in his affect than Jim (Calhoun). He’s working at it, getting them to understand the way he displays his intensity.”
People often ask, “What’s Kevin Ollie like? Does he act like Calhoun?
On the sidelines, he actually does. He’s very animated, standing, stomping and yelling for most of the game.
How about during interviews?
Well, on Dec. 22 of last year, Jim Calhoun’s response to a question about Boatright was “Oh, Ryan was awful. He made one big shot, but he was awful tonight.”
It’s highly, highly unlikely that Ollie will ever publicly use such an adjective when talking about his players. Win or lose, he calmly explains things in rather bland terms: “We just didn’t make the plays down the stretch that we’ve been making. They got to the free throw line a bunch; we didn’t get there conversely and that’s the ballgame.”
After the Paradise Jam opener against Wake Forest, Ollie told the media, “It’s a very simple game.”
And he’s right. Ollie’s contract situation and job performance will be over-analyzed to the extreme over the next few months, but success in coaching really boils down to two things: Can you get good players? Can you get your players to play hard and play well?
So far, it’s a check++ for effort; check+ for performance. The first question, though, is an INC. All indication is that Ollie, a dynamic personality with the microphones and cameras off, will pull some big recruits. But Monday he lost coveted guard Brandon Austin to Providence and last week top 10 forward Noah Vonleh committed to Indiana. UConn seems to be stuck on two — Terrence Samuel and Kentan Facey — for class 2013, and Facey has not yet signed his letter of intent.
There’s a potentially scary scenario: If Boatright and Napier go pro, a distinct possibility, and Ollie’s seven-month deal prevents him from upgrading UConn’s talent, 2014 really might be a struggle, no matter how hard the Huskies play.
As Dick Vitale so eloquently phrased it on Twitter, “KEVIN OLLIE IS THE PERFECT CHOICE TO KEEP UCONN AS AN ELITE PROGRAM — NEEDS MULTI YEAR DEAL 4 RECRUITING NOW!”
Manuel is no dummy. He knows that there’s truth behind Dicky V’s caps-lock scream-font. And that’s why he conceded that he’d like to have a decision on Ollie — yay or nay — prior to the March 9th season finale.
“I would like to make it before the deadline,” Manuel said. “Whether I make it before or not remains to be seen.”
Another fridge-worthy progress report might be all it takes.