Ollie takes on an old friend in Martelli

Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie talks to his team during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Cincinnati, Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Al Behrman)
Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie talks to his team during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Cincinnati, Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Al Behrman)
Posted: March 21, 2014

BUFFALO - Kevin Ollie, coach of the Connecticut Huskies, played three brief stints with the 76ers during a 13-year NBA career in which all of his stints around the league were relatively brief.

There were an awful lot of them, though. He played with 11 franchises, and it seemed there was always a place that wanted him for his influence in the locker room and on the court.

"Class. Class personified," said St. Joseph's coach Phil Martelli, whose Hawks meet up with Ollie's UConn team Thursday in the NCAA opener for both schools.

When Ollie first got to the Sixers, they still practiced at the St. Joe's Fieldhouse, back before it became Hagan Arena, back when the little coach's office was just steps from the court and some of the pro players would occasionally stick their heads in to say hello. Ollie, of course, was one of those guys.

"I was always fond of him. I always watched the games, and I knew how good a coach he was. With the Big Five and the tradition and us practicing there, it was a great opportunity to get familiarized with them," Ollie said Wednesday before the Huskies had their public practice at the First Niagara Arena.

Ollie didn't know it at the time, but he was actually scouting. What he thought he was doing was just talking basketball and learning a little more about the game that has been his livelihood.

"They've got a great motion offense that Coach Martelli has been using for years, getting the ball from side to side," Ollie said. "We're going to have to stay with our principles and . . . be at a level five, that's a championship mind-set."

Martelli has kept up with Ollie over the years, but downplays any help or influence he imparted when the player picked his brain a little.

"Heavy emphasis on pick my brain a little, because there's not much there," Martelli said. "Really, I do believe those are separate worlds, the NBA and college, and he would be a guy that I would say, 'Yeah, you could see him on a sideline in the NBA.' "

Instead of going that route, however, he took a job as assistant coach to UConn legend Jim Calhoun when Ollie's playing career ended. In a way it was a natural, since Ollie played for Calhoun and stayed close to the program. In another way, as Martelli suggested, it was immersing himself into a completely different game after 13 seasons as a pro.

"I'm in awe of the fact that he's two years in, he comes from the background of the NBA, and [how] his team defends," Martelli said. "Maybe I haven't delivered this clearly to my team, but this is a St. Louis-level defense, a top-10 field-goal percentage defense."

Ollie was Calhoun's assistant for two seasons until health issues forced the veteran coach to step aside. Now in his second season as head coach - and after a rookie season in which UConn was ineligible for postseason play - he's got the Huskies in the top half of the NCAA tournament bracket.

"We had a lot of choices, but Kevin embodies a lot of the characteristics that we value," Calhoun said as he stayed in the background away from the court and watched UConn practice Wednesday. "He's tough. Let me tell you one thing. When he got to UConn [as a player], he wasn't going to be a 13-year NBA player, but he made himself into that where he was always a positive and a benefit to a team. There was no doubt in my mind he could carry the program on and in some ways do better."

Following a coach who won three NCAA championships and always had his team in the national conversation is no joke, particularly in a state like Connecticut, where the Huskies dominate the attention. Ollie knew what he was getting into, but this is the season - and the tournament - when the clock really starts ticking.

"[Moving over] that 18 inches is a lot," Ollie said of his slide from the chair of the assistant coach to that of the head coach. "It's a lot of pressure. You get a lot of suggestions. I always believed in myself . . . but I could never fill Coach Calhoun's shoes. I like to say that we're from the same fabric, but we've got a different suit."

UConn fans will be leaning forward to see how he wears it for the next little while. They assume the first game against St. Joe's will be a good warm-up, but Ollie knows things they don't. He knows there will be more than one coach on the court, and that's something he learned a long time ago, in a little office, in a little gym somewhere along his long road.


bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports

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