UConn players unfazed by ban

New York - The probing question will dog them throughout the regular season.

There's no escaping the fact that UConn is ineligible to compete in postseason due to academic issues.

So, inquiring minds wanted to know during Big East media day Wednesday: What are the Huskies playing for this season?

To them, it's an easy answer.

"It really does bother me and bothers the whole team that we don't have (postseason) to play for," junior Tyler Olander said.

"At the end of the day, we still have the whole regular season to play. We have pride. We want to win every game."

UConn was the only team at the New York Athletic Club with no chance of returning to New York in March for the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden. The Huskies were picked to finish ninth in the preseason coaches' poll (Louisville was a unanimous No. 1 pick).

UConn first-year coach Kevin Ollie puts little stock into preseason polls.

"It's not about all that stuff," he said. "It's about what you do on the court. What are we doing in Gampel, those two to three hours that I have, that's what it is about. I don't see ninth. I don't see 16th. I don't see one. Because you've got to prove it every night.

"You've got it to prove it to yourself, prove it to the university and prove it to each other. I see these guys as guys that are coming together. I don't see them as the ninth team.

"I'm not in control of that. What I am in control of is making sure they're prepared each and every day."

The Huskies have adopted an underdog mentality. They vow they're going to play with a chip on their shoulder.

Their goal is to win the Big East regular-season title, something this group of players has never accomplished. As freshmen, Shabazz Napier, Tyler Olander and Niels Griffey helped the Huskies win a Big East tournament title and national championship.

Syracuse faced a similar postseason ban in 1993 due to NCAA violations. But the Big East allowed the Orange to compete in the conference tournament. They placed third at 10-8 and reached the Big East championship game, losing to Seton Hall.

"You just try to play your season," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "Your season is your season, that's it. This is your tournament.

"We started out bad and it looked like it was going to be a long year and they regrouped and finished great. We probably had one of the best regular seasons that we've had with everything that we had (going on)."

UConn has another reason to be motivated. The players are disappointed that Ollie only received a contract for this season after Jim Calhoun retired last month.

They are playing for Ollie's future.

"We've got to do our part to make sure that K.O. gets his second contract," sophomore Ryan Boatright said. "A lot of people feel that we don't have anything to play for but we feel we have a lot to play for this year."

The challenging situation just makes the determined and passionate Ollie, who regularly played under the pressure of short-term contracts during his 13 NBA seasons, work even harder.

"We're about hard work," he said. "We're about putting on our hard hats every day."

Louisville's Rick Pitino believes Ollie will succeed at UConn.

"I've known Kevin a long time," Pitino said. "He's a great choice and a very, very bright young man. The players are going to love him. I will say this: He does not have a great team this year, so the expectation should be very low."

"He has a terrific backcourt. He's got to build. There's no question in my mind that he'll be the head coach for a long, long time."

g.keefe@theday.com

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