One of the best league rivalries in college basketball formally came to an end on Wednesday night. (US Presswire)
HARTFORD, Conn. — It wasn’t just another terrific Big East battle between Syracuse and Connecticut on Wednesday night. It was the last terrific Big East battle, ever, between Syracuse and Connecticut.
Unranked and without the promise of postseason play, UConn looked damn good on its home floor against the No. 6 Orange. The final: 66-58. The XL Center, which has struggled all season to fill to capacity, was thrumming throughout, even though this last conference clash between two of the biggest Big East brands failed to provoke a sellout. The fan base that did show up, nonetheless, was invigorated and as loud as I’ve ever heard it in that building.
Rivalry games: the best.
After the final horn, UConn’s players took a victory lap around the court, hugging and handshaking students, alumni, fans, everybody in the first few rows. It was clearly the biggest win of the season for these Huskies and their first-year coach, Kevin Ollie.
As the parade of players pulled around the floor and through the exit tunnel, I couldn’t help but think how this was another touchstone moment in this rivalry — and it’s damn sad that it has to end. This is one of a cluster of culminations, the last stands of competition that are ending — and ending the Big East As We Know It — because of football-catalyzed divorce. We’ll see plenty of remorse-driven and guilt-trip-guided commentary with similar backdrop when the Big East tournament plays out this year and next, each a little less enticing with Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Louisville and Notre Dame leaving for the ACC — and then the Catholic 7 eventually fracturing off to form its own conference.
As the players made their way off the floor and past UConn athletic director Warde Manuel, one man said to Manuel, “Man, you brought everybody out for Syracuse.”
Of course. The school’s biggest donors and boosters filled the best seats in Hartford on Wednesday night because Syracuse still means something to UConn, and UConn still means something to Syracuse. That will still be the case as this rivalry enters into an undetermined era of warm standstill.
When the UConn team got back to the locker room, a happy-as-I’ve-ever-seen-him Jim Calhoun hung in the back, thrilled for his protege and former player, who got a win against one of Calhoun’s best friends in the coaching profession. Ollie took in congratulations from the chief of staff for the president of UConn and traded smiles with the school’s Board of Trustees chairman.
This is a springboard win and a signature one as well. Ollie was composed, proud, measured in his postgame comments, but the biggest smiles in the back halls afterward were coming from Ollie — and Calhoun. You see the reaction to a regular-season win like this, a victory that many coaches must wait years for, and think, “That’s why he got into the game.” I thought that of Ollie and Calhoun, and the old coach didn’t hang around for too long, by the way. He savored some time with friends and family, then made his way out of the XL Center just as Ollie was walking to his press conference.
Ollie made no news in that press conference, though. This was a night that became about Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim instead of UConn the instant that Boeheim added another 10-second clip to his all-time press conference highlight reel. The Boeheim quote that should be getting a bit more attention is here: “It will never be the same. It will never be the same.”
Jim Calhoun, left, and Jim Boeheim shared a conversation before UConn and Cuse’s last Big East battle. (US Presswire)
It can’t be, but it can be close. I’ll say this: Wednesday night will not be the last time that Syracuse and Connecticut play each other in the regular season. A renewed, out-of-conference series is coming. I don’t know when the rivalry will resume, but no one on either side is deflecting the possibility that an arrangement can be worked out in time. A fairly blind guess would be some time in the next two to four years before things pick up again.
Manuel and Syracuse athletic director Daryl Gross caught up before the game. The two have known each other for a decade, and both know how much this series means to the fans and to college basketball.
“At the appropriate time, we’ll talk about scheduling in the future,” said Manuel, “because of the type of games we play against each other.”
He estimated UConn has all but one non-conference game filled up for next season.
“So we’re talking at least two years now, at the minimum, and maybe a little longer,” he added.
UConn is entering an era that’s still filled with uncertainty. I mentioned above UConn’s inability to fill the XL Center for the biggest or second-biggest game of its season (it already hosted Louisville this year), and that’s a concern. What will UConn become in the next 10 years? In speaking Wednesday with a few around the program, that remains unclear.
“This feels right, doesn’t it?” Manuel said to me as we slowly strolled across the court of the XL Center, the arena mostly empty just 30 minutes after the game ended. He thinks UConn in the Big East is probably going to be what the school’s situation is and knows it’s going to take a while for that reality to settle. But UConn could become an East Coast Gonzaga, in a best-case scenario. The fans still are uneased by this, evidenced in a dip in attendance this season that those around UConn feel might not be strictly tied to the 2013 postseason ban.
“I don’t know if they’re fully on board yet,” Manuel said of the fans. “As we go through the cycles of it happening and we evolve … I think they’ll continue to support us, wherever we are.”
They are on board with Ollie, unequivocally. Manuel revealed to me that the consternation of waiting to sign Ollie to a long-term deal actually rallied the base in a way that it needed. He didn’t realize that until a booster put it into perspective for him. Ironically, Manuel became the frienemy that UConn needed — a human stress ball — amid such a bittersweet, volatile time for the program.
“He said, ‘In a time of uncertainty and a time of change, our fans had something to fight behind,’” Manuel said. “‘They got behind Kevin and got behind this team. It’s almost like they were against you to get you to do it [sign Ollie],’ and that wasn’t my intention. But by saying it the way he did, it put it into perspective for me.”
Manuel said for the first month and a half of the season, nearly every day he’d bring up his email and the inbox would have a new outpouring of varying levels of demands to sign Ollie to a multi-year deal.
Manuel said it was the loss to NC State at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 4 that sealed his decision. The way that UConn played, how Ollie handled himself up to that point and in that game: he knew he wanted him for the future. Ollie was officially signed to a new contract on Dec. 29, the day of UConn’s home game against Washington. Nearly 13,000 tickets were sold, but only half showed up due to a massive snowstorm. Ollie took a standing ovation after the deal was announced. Manuel said it was one of the proudest moments that he has had for another person in his professional life.
It’s that kind of demeanor that showed in Ollie afterward, Wednesday night, when he and I sat alone in the team locker room, an hour after the game ended. Ollie was in UConn warmups, putting his suit and dress shirt back onto its hangars. His phone was on vibrate and buzzing, literally constantly.
Beat Syracuse, and your phone won’t have much battery left by night’s end.
“Like everything else, tomorrow brings another challenge and we’ve gotta be able to face that challenge with the force we faced this one,” Ollie said. “We did it together. That’s the one thing I love about this team. They’ve got love, unconditionally, for each other, no matter ups and downs. No matter what obstacles that we have to face, they always look at it is as an opportunity.”
This is part of the course, as far as he’s concerned. He wants his players to be joyous for a night, then get back with the program by Thursday morning. The rivalries, they’ll come when they come, but it’s not part of Ollie’s early legacy. He’s concerned with keeping players on track to graduate and reinforcing only what he can control in terms of how UConn moves on, no matter its circumstance.
So Ollie’s not one for big, personal celebrations, though he did reveal the one ritual that he has taken to following after conference victories.
“After Big East wins I have a scoop of ice cream. So I’m gonna go have a scoop of ice cream with my wife.”
“Cookies and cream.”
“Always cookies and cream?”
“Always cookies and cream.”
“Just one scoop?”
“Not even two after this kind of win?”
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