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UConn’s decline has been swift, but may not be over yet

March 10, 2018 Columns No Comments

The steep decline of UConn since 2014 has reached a symbolic low point with Kevin Ollie being fired. But there isn’t much reason to think it’s all uphill from here, and it’s not just because there’s an NCAA investigation going on, which the school has cited in attempting to fire Ollie for just cause.

One had a sense Ollie could be let go considering the Huskies just finished their second straight losing season, although this one was a lot worse. Last year, there was at least the partial excuse of injuries, though anyone who knows the talent they have brought in recently can tell you they weren’t as talented. This year, however, while Alterique Gilbert suffered another shoulder injury, the Huskies were otherwise a healthier bunch, and still went 14-18. That included going 7-11 in the American Athletic Conference, and they bowed out in the first round of the conference tournament.

It’s a long way from being national champions just four short years ago.

A year after the national championship, Ryan Boatright did all he could to try to lift them back into the NCAA Tournament with a great run in the conference tournament. But they lost the championship game to SMU and had to settle for the NIT. They won the conference tournament a year later (with SMU ineligible and Memphis looking to steal a bid after upsetting third-seeded Tulsa and beating a Tulane team that upset second-seeded Houston) and won a game in the NCAA Tournament, but it’s been all downhill ever since.

It started with home losses to Wagner and Northeastern in the first two games of last season, but that was only the beginning. You knew it wasn’t a good sign when they barely beat Loyola Marymount (albeit on the road) and the only game they won in Maui was against Chaminade. There was at least a more auspicious beginning this year with three straight home wins, but getting thumped by Michigan State and Arkansas in the PK80 was a bad sign considering those were the only two NCAA Tournament teams they played there.

Does it get better from here? Not likely, at least not without more pain first. The NCAA investigation is only part of the reason. The other part is that the Huskies have become irrelevant, and there’s a lot more to that than the coach. Ollie was widely called a good coach from 2012-14; he didn’t suddenly become a bad coach.

UConn is not in a good place being in the American Athletic Conference. As is usually the case, football is driving the bus and basketball is an innocent victim. The Huskies have no natural rivals like they had in the Big East, and the only school you can drive to in a reasonable amount of time is Temple. While they now play Syracuse at Madison Square Garden, that doesn’t resonate aside from the respective fan bases since the Orange have also descended into being less relevant, and the game this year was about as ho-hum as you get. They don’t play Providence, St. John’s, Boston College or UMass. Rivalries like the ones they had in the Big East with the likes of Syracuse or Pittsburgh take time to build up.

As if that’s not bad enough, The American is a good ways from what the Big East was in terms of conference strength and depth, and the Huskies haven’t exactly been carrying it. The best any team from the conference has managed for a seed in the NCAA Tournament has been a No. 4, which Louisville did in their only year in the conference; otherwise it has been a No. 6, which a few teams have had. (That might change this year, as Cincinnati should fare a little better.) Since the first year, when the Huskies finished tied for third as part of a cluster of five teams that were head-and-shoulders better than the rest of the conference, the best they have done is tie for fifth place in the standings.

The NCAA investigation is still ongoing, but that may keep a candidate or two away, and at the very least will mean interested candidates are likely to ask some hard questions to know what they will get themselves into should they take the job. Even without the investigation and what the results of it could mean, it’s far from a given that they will lure a big name coach the way they could have half a decade or so ago. The university is in a tough spot in trying to improve itself, considering the state is practically bankrupt, and a long legal fight with Ollie over the time left on his contract is likely ahead, which means they may have to be careful with how much they pay a new coach.

Think about some of the names mentioned in passing to this point (most are merely suggestions), and at first glance none make a lot of sense.

Ed Cooley? He’s a hometown hero at Providence, and if he ever leaves his home, it won’t be for just any job, and the Big East is better right now. He also makes over $2 million a year, and given the potential legal battle and how much they could owe Ollie, they might have a tough time offering him enough to lure him away.

Steve Pikiell? Sure, he’s an alum, was a Calhoun assistant and has done well, but the Big Ten is a better place to be and he has Rutgers on the right track.

Dan Hurley? The Atlantic 10 is down this year, but it’s been about on part with the American Athletic Conference in recent years. Even if you say, for the sake of argument, that The American is better, it’s probably not enough of a step up by itself. Let’s not forget that when Rutgers opened up, he didn’t exactly jump at it, largely because he and his family are comfortable in Rhode Island, with his sons in high school.

Rick Pitino? News that he wants to coach again sure came at the right time, but this doesn’t make sense at all. The school is firing Ollie for just cause and cited the ongoing NCAA investigation, but they would turn right around and hire a guy who got fired because of an FBI investigation that may also translate into a big show-cause from the NCAA?

This isn’t to say none of these four will be the next head coach in Storrs, only that there are pretty clear reasons why none of them make sense for the job. They might get a “name” coach yet, but this isn’t the plum job it once was.

Jim Calhoun turned UConn into a powerhouse, but being in the Big East certainly helped as it was something to sell recruits on in the beginning. The descent from national champion to being irrelevant took just a few years, with the conference they are currently in playing a role. Trying to get back to being relevant could take longer given the situation. It’s entirely possible that things get worse before they get better.

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