It's nice that UConn has heart ... but it's nicer to have players

Hartford — And so the big barn downtown was full Saturday to see an old friend, the No. 1 Villanova Wildcats, who turned the afternoon into "meet the new loss, same as the old loss," for 15,564 exasperated loyalists of UConn.

Nothing new here. The clinking, clanking collection was down 70-39 at one point, eliciting some boos. And now for coach Kevin Ollie's postgame thoughts:

"We're young, we're fighting each and every day," he said when asked about the state of the program. "Of course, I don't want to be 10-9. But at the end of the day, I'm not going to give in, I'm not going to give up. I think our coaching staff is fighting each and every day and our players are getting better.

"We're going to fight through adversity. It's not going to last. We're just going to keep staying connected. That's the only thing I can do. Of course, I do not want to be 10-9. But I know at the end of the day, this is temporary. We're going to keep fighting. Keep fighting on the recruiting trail. Getting UConn players in here and meshing with the guys we have. (By) the same token, we've got to fight and play with pride for this UConn jersey."

Ollie was then asked if he believes his talent level is good enough to win in his league.

His response: "We're 3-3 in the league. We went to double overtime with Tulsa or we'd be 4-2. In our league we're fine. We've got to keep fighting and keep getting better. It's not the two hours we're in practice. It's the 22 hours outside of practice. We're seeing as a coaching staff what we need. We're out on the recruiting trails getting it. We love our guys that are fighting with us every day. The biggest thing — when the ship is sinking, the rats jump off first. The scavengers jump off first. So we're not scavengers, we're not rats. We're staying right on the damn boat."

Ollie was asked if he thought the fight was there Saturday.

"The fight was there. The first half they went on a 24-4 run and that got us," he said. "But in the second half our guys didn't hang their head, they kept fighting. If we can ever start running offense through Josh (Carlton) it'll really slow the game down. He started really performing down there in the second half and (as a team) we had nine assists and three turnovers. We weren't just jacking up shots from the three point line. ... I've been through a lot of wars. Lost by 33 to Louisville and three weeks later we won the national championship. We're never going to give in, never going to give up."

Finally, Ollie was asked about what's needed here.

"We can go down the list of what we need," he said. "I wish I had a 7-footer, 7-2 guy. I wish I had ... all athletes, all shooters. But at the end of the day, we've got heart. ... We're not buried. Everybody can write that. But we're not buried."

OK. What Ollie said is understandable. But what confidence does anybody have — even the most ardent UConn supporter — that he can actually deliver?

It's nice to have heart. But it's nicer to have players. And what we're watching here is stunning. How is it possible for a program with UConn's cachet to have so few shooters and rebounders? Ollie says they're on the recruiting trail — right there with every other staff in the country — but what are they looking for? More "versatile" players, as he calls them? "Versatile" with what skills, exactly?

Ollie's vision, gaggles of athletic 6-7 guys, is fine, so long as they possess discernible basketball skills. Do you see much of that here?

Put it this way: A wise man who follows the program said Saturday that UConn once had 13 lottery picks in 18 years. There have been zero in the last seven. Do you see any on the current roster?

Then there's the offense. Think of what we all recognize as offense: Motion, Princeton, Flex. UConn's entry: "Quick, Jalen, think of something."

And this whole "we're young" narrative? Why are they young? In part because some players left. Why did they leave? What responsibility for their departures does Ollie bear?

This is sad. UConn basketball is becoming the Yankees in the late 60s after The Mick retired. Fans pining for the old days, quick to point to the banners, because it's a whole lot more palatable than addressing the present.

This is the present: Notable UConn fan "Big Red" actually did his "U-C-O-N-N UConn! UConn! UConn!" cheer after Villanova coach Jay Wright called a timeout Saturday ... with the Huskies down 18.

This is the present: XL Center security confiscated a sign from a UConn fan at Saturday's game that read, "Fire Ollie."

The Huskies have become a moribund mid major mired in mediocrity. Except this is still UConn. With a history to be revered.

"It's really nice to be back here, just great basketball passion in this state and this arena," Wright said. "For me, it brings back great memories and great battles with UConn. Pretty cool."

Those were the days.

And now? Ollie can admonish the rats and scavengers. He can stay on his damn boat. But is he the right captain?

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro


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