The Houston Cougars were one of college basketball’s top ten programs for about twenty years, from 1965-1985. This run, under legendary coach Guy Lewis, culminated in the “Phi Slama Jama” era during the early 1980s, when Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon led the Cougars to three straight Final Fours. Lewis retired in 1986, and since the Cougars have made just four appearances in the NCAA tournament, and only one since 1993.
The fall of the Houston basketball program is a sad tale of lost relevance. It is a story of struggling to replace a legendary coach, of losing their status in an elite conference, and of seeing their NBA pipeline dry up. The tale of the Cougars is one that brings a tear to every knowledgeable college basketball fan, and is a grave reminder that no program, save for a select few, is safe from toiling into obscurity should they become complacent.
This past weekend, the UConn Huskies opened a much-anticipated season with a pair of inexplicable losses. The games against Wagner and Northeastern were matchups that any old Husky team would have won by 30. Instead, this edition, led by Kevin Ollie, shockingly dropped both contests. Even more alarming was the apathy showed not just by the players, but the coach himself. Instead of appearing incendiary and effusive, Ollie appeared stoic and distant as the final seconds ticked away. For a proud program that once was the alpha male in college basketball’s greatest conference, it is not hard to argue that, three years after winning a championship, they have reached the ledge, and are threatening to teeter over, into the abyss.
Jim Calhoun is arguably one of the three greatest college coaches of all time, and the undisputed best program builder of the modern era (since 1985, the beginning of the 64-team tournament). He took a small state school in the northeast, which prior to 1986 had been to just one Elite Eight, and guided them to three national titles over twenty-six years. Between 1990 and 2010, the Huskies were a top-two seed eleven times, and reached a trio of Final Fours. Since Calhoun retired in 2012, his handpicked successor, former Husky guard Kevin Ollie, has led the Huskies to another championship. However, the decline since that day in April of 2014 has been steep.
Replacing a legend is never easy, but Husky fans felt Kevin Ollie would be more than capable, and the title in his second year only amplified this sentiment. But instead, Ollie has consistently underperformed, guiding teams with top 25 talent on paper to underachievement. His offense has been abysmal, as the pick-and-roll pro style he attempts to run looks like a high school JV team. No Ollie-led team has finished a year among college basketball’s top fifty offenses. Now, looking back after a couple years, it appears the 2014 title run was a case of a very special player, Shabazz Napier, who was recruited to UConn by Calhoun, putting a team on his back, and not of Ollie simply becoming a coaching prodigy.
Ollie has also struggled to exhibit any skills of developing players to this point, something his mentor excelled at. Coach Calhoun would take someone who didn’t even crack the top 75 of recruiting rankings, like Emeka Okafor, or top 150, like Hilton Armstrong, and turn them into lottery picks. Ollie has seen top twenty recruits DeAndre Daniels and Daniel Hamilton both leave with eligibility remaining and get drafted in the second round. Neither has seen any NBA action. What’s even more troubling is the lack of improvement depicted by the current senior class. Kentan Facey and Amida Brimah show no signs of offensive improvement, while both are still prone to youthful mistakes on defense. Former five-star Rodney Purvis continues to play passively on offense, and has not developed into the sure-fire pro he was labeled as out of high school.
Of course, not all this blame should be on Ollie. Purvis did not show signs of major potential during his one year at NC State, and neither Brimah nor Facey were ranked highly as recruits. However, fans are not asking for them to become worthy of NBA draft selections, only to develop into serviceable college bigs, something they have not done. Ollie has a chance to turn this narrative of below average coaching and development around. He pulled in four top-100 recruits this past season, and has another lined up for next year. There is legitimate talent on the roster, although nearly all of it lies in the freshmen and sophomores. The trends pertaining to Ollie’s coaching habits and player development have not been encouraging, but he still has two more years to turn this around, and save the Husky program from irrelevance.
Houston’s struggles only were aggrandized by their move from the Southwest Conference (which saw its best members merge with the Big Eight to form the Big 12) to Conference USA in 1996. UConn, prior to 2012, was arguably the standard-bearer of the “old Big East”, the greatest basketball conference ever assembled. But since the formation of the American Athletic Conference, UConn’s basketball program has taken a definite hit. Whether it be on the recruiting trail or in scheduling, this situation is a far cry from the days of ESPN’s Big Monday, and is poisonous for UConn’s long-term success.
When the ACC took Louisville over UConn in late 2011, true fear struck through the hearts of Husky faithful. Perception is often reality, and with UConn being left on the outside looking in, the perception of their basketball program being unequal to the Power Five will inevitably set in. This is through no fault of anyone in the basketball program, but still something that could wind up being the decisive hit to the program’s success. The income gap, let alone the perception gap, between the Power Five and the AAC is so great that eventually, there will be nothing UConn can do. They have fought a losing battle for several years now, and have fought it valiantly. But it is a war they cannot win, and if the program must toil in AAC mediocrity for more than another decade, without a major change to the college basketball landscape, all the history, all the championships, will be for naught. They will only be historical footnotes, of a time long forgotten, when UConn was one of the five premiere programs of the college basketball world.
The first team to have five draft picks in a two-round NBA draft was UConn, something they accomplished in 2006 (four of those players were taken in the first round, tying the old record since shattered by Kentucky). Since Kevin Ollie took over, only one Husky has been drafted in the first round, Shabazz Napier in 2014. DeAndre Daniels went 37th overall in that same draft, while Daniel Hamilton went 56th in 2016. The days of UConn fielding teams with multiple pro prospects are no longer around, and a look at the current roster does not bring much optimism. Brimah, had he developed the way many hoped, would have been one. Jalen Adams and Steven Enoch are only sophomores, but neither has an overwhelming amount of pro buzz (although, to be fair, they both have some buzz). Terry Larrier, the redshirt-sophomore who transferred from VCU, may be the Huskies’ next best shot at a first round selection, but he is still fundamentally raw and not physically ready for pro ball. He is a long way away from being a consistent NBA player. UConn must find a way to right this ship, and get back to producing and developing NBA talent.
For years, UConn players were omnipresent on the pro scene. There was Clifford Robinson, then Ray Allen, and then Richard Hamilton, followed by players like Ben Gordon, Emeka Okafor, and Rudy Gay. All were developed under Calhoun, and gave UConn an incredible presence in the NBA, which brought nationwide exposure at the most important level for recruiting. However, Richard Hamilton and Ray Allen have retired. Emeka Okafor has been out of the league for a few years due to injuries. The centerpieces of UConn’s NBA alumni network are growing older and beginning move on, and the overall number of pros produced by UConn has also dwindled. Being in the AAC, UConn needs every recruiting advantage it can get, and its NBA pitch grows weaker by the year.
There is hope, however. Kemba Walker and Andre Drummond are both rising stars who have the bulk of their careers still to play. Both can be fantastic standard-bearers for the program at least for another decade. While UConn’s quantity of NBA players and flagship names have begun to decline and retire, these two have enough star power to become the next headliners for UConn in the NBA. Still, they are only two players, a far cry from the two dozen UConn could frequently count on NBA rosters during the late 2000s. It is up to Walker and Drummond to carry UConn’s NBA legacy for as long as they can. Without them, the school’s NBA pedigree threatens to also go the way of Houston.
A common proverb states that “it is always darkest before dawn”. UConn is certainly in the darkest part of the tunnel, clinging to the hope that soon, they will see the light at the end, and emerge once again as one of the five best basketball programs in the country. It is certainly possible. The team has the undying support of an entire state, can point to its frequent television appearances, and recently built a state-of-the-art practice facility that cost near $40 million, and is arguably the best in the country. The pieces are there for the Huskies to take back their throne, despite the current state of the program.
Much of this rests on the coach. Kevin Ollie has underperformed the high bar Shabazz Napier set for him in 2014. But, there is still time for him to put the pieces together; he just needs to do this with more urgency. At 43, Ollie is still one of the youngest coaches in Division I, and played under the tutelage of not just Calhoun, but Larry Brown, Chuck Daly, and others. He is still learning how to run a professional style pick-and-role in the college game. He is also an expert communicator, as illustrated by his frequent “Ollie-isms” and recruiting prowess. He, and the program, are in a very rough patch at the moment.
But there is no reason, as of yet, to begin calling for his head. At a minimum, Ollie must be given through next year, when the current underclassmen are more mature. There is also a sense among Husky fans that Hamidou Diallo will be added to the 2017 roster, and should Diallo commit to UConn, it makes 2017 all the more critical for both Ollie and the UConn program. Another underwhelming year, with the kind of talent he could have on that roster, could be reason enough for the AD to clean house.
For the past several years, being a UConn basketball fan has been the most unique experience in college athletics. The team has gone on not one, but two, magical tournament runs led by transcendent players. They have seen a legendary coach retire, and get replaced by his handpicked successor. The program faced a period marred by sanctions which culminated in a postseason ban. In an earthshaking development, the program also had to deal with being left behind in conference realignment. Still, Huskynation has put on its game face, and tried to soldier through all of these challenges.
In 2015-16, Houston threatened to make the NCAA tournament for the first time in a decade. While the team eventually faltered and wound up in the NIT, notorious coach Kelvin Sampson has the program well-positioned to make noise once again, thirty years after its heyday. There is still hope that UConn can escape this fate of a thirty-year sentence to purgatory, but the program must act with urgency. Kevin Ollie must make the necessary adjustments as a coach, and the Athletic Department must remain committed to exploring options to improve UConn’s conference situation.
Even this season, there is still hope. The talent on the roster, flawed seniors, juvenile freshmen, and everything in between, is that of a top twenty-five team. Ollie has shown in the past when there is talent on the roster, he can put it together and make something magical happen. It starts in Maui. Winning two games in Maui is a necessity for the team, at this point. Even after that tournament, there will be over twenty games left to play. The early losses are deplorable, but do not have to mean the entire season should be thrown away. The most endearing trait of a loyal sports fan is optimism, that the team will improve, that the situation will get better, both in the short term and the long term. Right now, UConn basketball is at a low point, struggling in the short term and facing an uncertain long term. But this is no reason for fans to give up hope and abandon their team. UConn will not go the way of the dodo or the Houston Cougar, not unless their fan base allows it. Even in these dark times, the glass must be seen at half full, or else there is no reason to continue being a fan.
I have faith in Kevin Ollie. Despite all his flaws, which have been extensively outlined, I still trust that he is the one who can pull this program back from the edge. Losses like the past two have been difficult, but the program will survive. It must carry on. Whether I am watching on TV or standing in the front row wearing my throw blanket as a cape, I will root for the Huskies, and always be optimistic they will win the game, turn the season around, and get back to their place among the sport’s elite.
UConn Logo: http://doggydaddyuconn.blogspot.com/
Drexler and Olajuwon: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/335940453426271396/