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It's a whole new game for UConn

By Gavin Keefe

Publication: The Day

Published November 01. 2012 4:00AM
Jessica Hill/AP Photo
Kevin Ollie, shown as an assistant coach last season with UConn in a game against Marquette on Feb. 18, will be in his first game as the Huskies' head coach tonight when they play American International in an exhibition game at Storrs.
Ollie Era begins tonight with exhibition game against AIC

Storrs - There's plenty of mystery surrounding these new-look UConn Huskies.

New players.

New roles.

New head coach.

New attitude.

New offensive system.

But there is one thing Husky fans should be able to count on this season, starting with tonight's exhibition opener against American International College, a Division II program, at 7 p.m., at Gampel Pavilion. All-out effort.

These Huskies have to avoid falling into last year's bad habits of relying too much on talent and athleticism and not enough on heart and hustle.

"With this kind of a team, we can't let that happen," junior Tyler Olander said after practice on Wednesday. "We're not as talented. We don't have three or four projected lottery picks. That's not this team. This is a team that just works hard."

First-year coach Kevin Ollie has stressed hard work throughout preseason workouts. Effort is everything to Ollie who built a 13-year NBA career through sheer determination and relentless work ethic.

Tonight's game is just the first step in a long process, according to Ollie.

"We've still got a lot of work to go," Ollie said. "Hopefully, we use this as a point of reference, a foundation builder. Hopefully, we'll see some good things out there. I know we're going to see some things that we've got to work on. … A team evolves throughout the year.

"Hopefully, they go out and play hard basketball because that's something that you can always do. You can always play hard and that should not wane and not waver."

Ollie has pushed the Huskies during workouts, preaching conditioning and team unity. They've responded, developing a tight bond.

Junior Shabazz Napier, who's almost fully recovered from his foot injury, has high expectations for his team. He says one point of emphasis tonight will be for the Huskies to keep their composure.

"One thing for certain, I expect a lot of mistakes to happen," Napier said. "I hope and I feel like we will keep our composure. This is a stepping stone. This is an exhibition game. It doesn't count as a record, but it does count to see how far your team has come."

The Huskies are in the early stages of learning a new offense. They will spread the floor and crank up the tempo all over the court. Their strength is in the backcourt where Napier, sophomore Ryan Boatright and Omar Calhoun, a talented freshman, reside.

Rebounding is a major concern. The Huskies lost their three top rebounders in Andre Drummond, Alex Oriakhi and Jeremy Lamb from a team that barely out-rebounded their Big East opponents last season. Once again, it comes down to effort, according to Ollie.

"You can't take off a rebound," Ollie said. "You can't take off consistently beating people to the basketball. Hopefully we show that. We've got to box out. We've got to hit first. That's something that I haven't been seeing. And I want to see more of it, because we can do it. And we're going to have to do it."

"So we're going to have to hit first and we're going to have to have our guards hit first, so it's not all our forwards and centers. It's everybody. It's me. I've got to hit first. I've got to hit that coach first. I don't know how I'm going to do it."

Ollie plans to experiment with the rotation, using several different combinations. He didn't reveal his starting lineup, saying that he has about three different possibilities floating inside his head.

"I think I'm going to let my daughter pick them," Ollie said with a laugh.

By the end of tonight's game, there will be a little less mystery to these new-look Huskies.

News and notes

Boatright suffered a mild left ankle sprain during practice and sat out. "For precautionary reasons, we just kept him out," Ollie said. "I think he will be full go ready to perform and be Ryan Boatright." … Center Enosch Wolf, who is recovering from a concussion, took part in non-contact drills but won't play tonight. He's expected to be ready for Sunday's exhibition against UMass-Lowell. … AIC returns its top six scorers from a team that went 8-18 last season. Janek Schmidkunz was a teammate with UConn's Niels Giffey on the German club team, ALBA Berlin.

g.keefe@theday.com

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