Setbacks, uncertainty at UConn not likely to tarnish storied program
Eventually, R.J. Evans stopped trying. It seemed every time he began to tell someone his exciting news -- that this fall, after three-plus seasons playing at Holy Cross, he would be suiting up for UConn -- they would immediately feel compelled to point out news of which Evans was already well aware: that after failing to meet the NCAA's academic benchmark, the Huskies would be ineligible for postseason play this spring.
"I got sick of explaining it to them," Evans says. "I just didn't even acknowledge it after a while."
Evans, a 6-foot-3 guard who was granted a medical redshirt after being limited to eight games by a sports hernia as a junior, had other reasons for using his final season of eligibility in Storrs. A native of Salem, Conn., about 45 minutes south of campus, he relished the opportunity to join the program for which most boys in the state dream of playing, with friends and family regularly in the stands. He also liked how coaches first focused on determining which graduate school program he could enter -- he settled on educational psychology -- before discussing the basketball-related details. And there was also the appeal of learning from Jim Calhoun, the straight-shooting Hall of Fame coach who assuaged any hangups Evans might have had relating to the looming postseason ban in a recruiting visit this spring.
"He laid some old-man wisdom on me," says a smiling Evans, who is eligible to play immediately because he earned his bachelor's degree from Holy Cross and the school does not offer graduate courses. "He said that if I was a year older and transferred here last year, I would've come here just to play one [NCAA tournament] game and lose to Iowa State. You can't make your decision based on one game."
For all of the Huskies, this season will need to be spent chasing something other than the usual dangling carrot of tournament success. After losing its appeal in June, the program's shortcomings in its four-year Academic Progress Rate -- a somewhat divisive metric that measures teams based on the retention and academic eligibility of scholarship players -- through the 2010-11 season officially made it the first member of a power conference to be barred by the NCAA from postseason play due to APR scores. (Nine other schools, including Toledo and UNC-Wilmington, will also be ineligible for postseason play this season for the same reason.) The Big East had previously doubled down by voting to exclude any team receiving such sanctions from its conference tournament, denying UConn a potential consolation prize.
It was for this reason that 6-9 forward Alex Oriakhi, a three-year starter and co-captain last season, transferred to Missouri. His announcement in March marked the first of five early departures from the team: sophomore guard Jeremy Lamb and freshman center Andre Drummond became NBA lottery picks, sophomore forward Roscoe Smith left for UNLV, and second-year center Michael Bradley, who redshirted his freshman season and missed last year with an ankle injury, transferred to Vincennes University, a junior college in Indiana. The resulting dearth of bodies was one reason the Huskies made the unusual step of bringing in a player in Evans's situation.
The program was seemingly thrown for another loop earlier this month when Calhoun, an avid bicyclist, hit a patch of sand during a ride on the morning of a charity basketball game Aug. 4. Calhoun fractured his left hip in the subsequent crash, requiring surgery and confining him to his home for three weeks. The 70-year-old coach, who has said that looming NCAA sanctions motivated him to return after his third national championship in 2011 rather than dump the burden on his successor, had already been delaying a decision on whether he would coach the upcoming season until the fall -- a plan modeled after that of Dean Smith, whom Calhoun has long admired. The hip injury has raised speculation that Calhoun, a three-time cancer survivor who missed eight games last season due to a painful bout of spinal stenosis that required surgery, might decide it's time to step down after 26 seasons at Connecticut's helm.
All of this hubbub has fueled chatter about the potential decline of one of college basketball's staple powerhouses, but those in the program balk at such talk less than 17 months after Calhoun led UConn to its third national championship in 12 seasons.
"People can try to point out, oh they're sliding backwards, but facts are facts," says assistant coach Glen Miller, a member of Calhoun's staff from 1986-93 who rejoined the program in 2010. "The facts are the facts when it comes to championships here. The facts are the facts when it comes to the players who have developed and gone on to the NBA."
If any outside perspectives on the situation were to be worrisome, it would be those of the Huskies' recruiting targets. But with the Class of 2012 already in the books -- Connecticut will be bringing in four-star Brooklyn guard Omar Calhoun, 6-10 center Phillip Nolan from Milwaukee, and 6-8 German forward Leon Tolksdorf -- this year's postseason ineligibility is a storm already weathered on that front. More troubling might be the uncertainty about Jim Calhoun, which could be tempting negative-recruiting fodder for schools looking to dissuade prospects from heading to Storrs. Yet that situation may be more settled than it appears given the expectation that Kevin Ollie, formerly Calhoun's star guard and now one of his assistants, is the heir to the head coaching job.
Though Ollie, a 13-year NBA veteran, has no head coaching experience and has only been an assistant for two seasons, Calhoun has come out in favor of his possible promotion, as have several prospects who are wary of joining a program with a head coaching change on the horizon. And should Ollie be thrust into the role as early as this fall, those in the program expect a smooth transition, especially since he would be going it alone. Calhoun has vowed to remain a presence within the program "with or without a whistle" and currently heads a staff that includes former Division I head coaches George Blaney (27 years between Dartmouth, Holy Cross, and Seton Hall), Miller (10-plus years at Brown and Penn) and Karl Hobbs (10 years at George Washington).
Even with Calhoun's latest health issue, the succession-plan speculation might be unnecessary for this year. Calhoun, who was mostly mum while recovering from surgery before returning to campus Sunday, has remained actively involved over the phone with both his coaching staff and recruits even when stuck at home. Less than a week after the coach's crash, the Huskies landed a verbal commitment from 6-8 Jamaican-born forward Kentan Facey, a Long Islander Ollie hosted during his Aug. 8 visit. Says Miller, "Every indication that [Calhoun has] given us and every indication that he's given through his actions is that he's the head coach here and he'll continue to be the head coach here."
Whoever is coaching will have some work to do with a roster that lost a lot from last year's relatively disappointing season, which included an 8-10 Big East record and a span where the Huskies dropped eight of 11 games. The team's strength should be its backcourt, where 6-1 junior Shabazz Napier (13 points and 5.8 assists per game last season, with 11 20-point outings) and 6-foot Ryan Boatright (10.4 points per game, 37.7 percent from three as a freshman) have shown star potential. They'll be joined by Evans, a tenacious and sturdy defender who averaged 11.5 points and scored 15 against his new team while at Holy Cross last season, and Omar Calhoun, the 6-5 Brooklyn scorer who was named Gatorade's New York Player of the Year as a senior and should become a significant contributor early.
The rest of the lineup is more tenuous. The Huskies will need more than they've ever asked for from a pair of juniors, 6-7 swingman Niels Giffey and 6-9 forward Tyler Olander, who combined to play for just over 29 minutes per game last season and averaged a collective 6.8 points. Sophomore DeAndre Daniels, a 6-8 forward who averaged three points per game as a freshman, will get ample opportunity to tap into his potential. Nolan and little-used 7-1 junior Enosch Wolf could factor heavily into plans too.
Olander, for one, thinks this year's Huskies will be plenty motivated to refute their detractors. "We have a good core group of guys and a bunch of us kind of have a chip on our shoulder," he says. "We have to prove to everybody that we still are a really good team here."
He is quick to point out that the team can still be ranked. To a man, the Huskies say that nothing will change on the court. Every practice will remain as intensely competitive as before; every game on the schedule can still be won, even if it will not earn them any extension of their schedule. So they will try to accrue whatever accomplishments remain, be it highly visible non-conference wins in November's trips to Ramstein Air Base in Germany and the Paradise Jam tournament in the U.S. Virgin Islands or a surprise run through their conference slate.
"That should be our goal, the regular season Big East championship," Evans says. "They can't take that away from us."