Jim Calhoun envisions bright future
STORRS, Conn. -- NBA commissioner David Stern is the one constant face you see on the wall that's wrapped around the Connecticut coaching offices at the entrance of the Gampel Pavilion floor.
In each framed photo, Stern is shaking the hand of yet another UConn first-round draft pick. Even before you get to the newly-mounted wall plaque that displays the Huskies' two national championships in 1999 and 2004, you are inundated by the pros who have come through the program under Hall of Famer Jim Calhoun, many of whom are still playing a major role in the NBA (the Celtics' Ray Allen; the Pistons' Ben Gordon and Rip Hamilton; and Memphis Grizzlies star wing Rudy Gay.)
If there is an indicator whether the Huskies have a program that's still among the blueblood elite or one that is in decline, it's if the star power of these players is on par with those from the past.
Calhoun's 11 former Huskies who were on opening-day rosters in the NBA ranks fifth, trailing UCLA, Duke, Kentucky, Kansas and North Carolina.
If there are players on the current roster, or possibly one coming in 2012 (if the Huskies get the projected No. 1 player -- St. Thomas More (Conn.) forward Andre Drummond), comparable to those 11, the perception of the Huskies shouldn't change much at all.
For now, the projections don't indicate that the Huskies' roster is filled with NBA-bound talent. But with a roster dominated by underclassmen, it's too early to be certain.
Connecticut has a chance to dismiss the perception that it could be headed toward a second-tier status, even while facing an unknown resolution from an Oct. 15 NCAA hearing in front of the Committee on Infractions. (A hearing in which Calhoun spent 14 hours in an Indianapolis hotel conference room defending a charge as to whether he oversaw an atmosphere of compliance during the recruitment of one-time player Nate Miles.)
It was two years ago that the Huskies and Calhoun were in Detroit at the Final Four, losing a national semifinal to hometown Michigan State. Last season, they had moments of glory by knocking off then-No. 1 Texas and taking down Villanova and West Virginia when both teams were soaring. However, the enigmatic bunch, led by erratic seniors Jerome Dyson and Stanley Robinson, missed the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three seasons and lost in the NIT's second round at Virginia Tech.
"There's nothing wrong with the future of UConn basketball,'' said Calhoun, as he looked out on the floor and pointed to a few potential pros that could develop on the roster from star point guard Kemba Walker, who he anticipates will leave for the NBA after his junior season, to freshmen guards Jeremy Lamb, Shabazz Napier and Roscoe Smith to possibly even freshman forward Tyler Olander, who is from a few miles away in Mansfield and who has already made a major impact with his skills and hustle.
"Three Final Fours in 10 years [and] two national championships should translate in recruiting, but I know players relate to all the players in the league, and we just got another one when Jeff Adrien made the Warriors,'' Calhoun said. "Every kid that left here early got drafted in the first round. That's the kind of thing we hear most.''
One of the signs that this program puts its faith in its future is how it reached toward its NBA-level player past in the hiring of assistant Kevin Ollie. No UConn player exhibited more of the Calhoun work ethic than Ollie. He is an American success story who was a decent signee from Compton, Calif. He turned himself into a contributor and found a home on multiple teams in the NBA with a series of one-year deals before hitting payday in Cleveland and ultimately in a mentor role in Oklahoma City.
Ollie could still be playing with the Thunder. He could be in the front office with GM Sam Presti. But he chose to come back to his adopted home where he has carved out a niche in nearby Glastonbury. During practice, it is Ollie who is out there literally pushing the tempo and looking every bit as capable of running every one of the players, including Walker, off the floor.
"Kevin chose to come back because he loves UConn, and now we'll have even more [NBA players] come back because one of their guys is here,'' Calhoun said. "Kevin has brought a level of enthusiasm. He can show what the responsibility is of putting on a UConn jersey.''
If the coaching staff can turn the program into a consistent winner the next two seasons, or for however long the 68-year-old Calhoun continues to coach (he signed a four-year extension last season), Ollie could -- and should -- emerge as a favorite to succeed him. He is as personable and likeable a coach and former NBA player as you'll find, and no one can promote the Huskies better than him after what he has accomplished.
"The program is in good hands with coach [Calhoun],'' Ollie said. "He's energetic every day here.''
Ollie said the UConn brand can't sell itself, though, admitting the prospect has to want to buy. "That's our job as recruiters,'' Ollie said. "We've got to let them know about the stories, like how much Ben Gordon would work here and get in the extra shots. Coach gave them the opportunity to display those talents. All these guys that played in the NBA played under Coach Calhoun. They didn't get there playing for somebody else.''
Ollie got the job in large part because UConn jettisoned out two assistant coaches over misleading NCAA investigators in the recruitment of Miles. Patrick Sellers was gone and so too was Beau Archibald, who was replaced by another former Calhoun player and former Brown and Penn head coach Glen Miller.
"There's been a lot going on with the Huskies program, including staff changes, and they missed on some key targets last year,'' said ESPN.com recruiting analyst Dave Telep. "This year has been a grind, and the Huskies couldn't close on a few key targets again. The real test for UConn is in 2012 when Andre Drummond is a senior. He'll be a litmus test for Jim Calhoun, as he's the top player and a local kid. He's the closest thing to a must-have recruit.''
According to at least one source, there's a chance Drummond could graduate early and be a part of next year's recruiting class. Still, Calhoun said the commitment shown by seven newcomers (7-foot-1 German Enosch Wolf will join the team at midseason) proves to him -- and should to everyone else -- that there is a faith in the program "in the face of all this other stuff. Now what we have to do is win enough games to compete for a national championship. Have we had a lot of things happen? Clearly, we have and we had a bad season or had better players than our record would indicate.''
The Committee on Infractions heard Calhoun's argument that he shouldn't be personally singled out. His stance was that he warned his staff to distance itself from former manager-turned-agent Josh Nochimson -- not that he was oblivious to the potential problem. The Huskies' self-imposed sanctions of losing a scholarship for two seasons might not be increased much or at all since Miles never played a game for them (he was dismissed from school after he violated a restraining order that was issued against him by a woman).
What's at stake when the COI issues its report, likely in December, is Calhoun's image of being in control of his program. He said mistakes were made but doesn't consider anything that was done egregious.
"All I can say is that I know who I am and what I've done, and I felt over those 14 hours that I got a chance to tell the story as I saw the story,'' Calhoun said. "I got a chance to tell the committee. They asked me questions, and it went back and forth but it wasn't contentious. I left there feeling, 'OK, you said what you feel happened, and there were mistakes made by all of us.' We never gained a competitive recruiting advantage.''
The Big East is hardly a daunting league this season. Pitt is the favorite but is void of an NBA can't-miss talent. Calhoun said he could see Pitt winning the national championship but that the Panthers aren't his 2006 Huskies that didn't win the title but had five NBA players.
"We're much healthier as a program with the players we have now,'' Calhoun said. "I believe in UConn. I love the program, and I like this team. I don't know how good we're going to be. I'm not sure we can overcome the youthfulness. We're not a good team right now, but eventually we will be.''
Calhoun said the Huskies don't have a player like Duke freshman point guard Kyrie Irving, who could be one of the top picks in the 2011 NBA draft.
"But we've got good young people here for the next couple of years,'' Calhoun said. "It's our job to show people that this is one of the best programs in America.''
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.