STORRS, Conn. – Connecticut's basketball team runs a road race around campus each fall to mark the start of their run toward a championship.
Thursday afternoon's Husky Run, as it has always been, was 3.4 miles. But this year, the season's run will be shorter than usual, ending in March. UConn didn't qualify academically for the NCAA tournament and is also banned from the Big East tournament.
New coach Kevin Ollie, who took over last month when Hall of Famer Jim Calhoun retired, said they are finding other things to motivate them, including a regular season championship and respect.
"I really want the opponent to leave the court and say, 'Why are they playing so hard?'" Ollie said. "They're not playing for an NCAA tournament. They ain't going to the Big East. Why are they playing so hard? That's what I want them to leave with every day. If they do that, then we've succeeded."
Ollie, who played for Calhoun at UConn and spent 13 years in the NBA, will make his debut against Michigan State on Nov. 9 at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.
Because he's never been a head coach at any level, he was given just a one-season contract. The final game on that deal is March 9 against Providence.
"We know what he's got at stake," said guard Ryan Boatright. "We know what we've got to do to help him fulfill what he wants to do. So, everybody's playing for each other. It's a brotherhood."
Connecticut lost not only Calhoun, but five underclassmen in the offseason. Andre Drummond and Jeremy Lamb are in the NBA. Alex Oriakhi (Missouri), Roscoe Smith (UNLV) and Michael Bradley (Western Kentucky) all transferred after the NCAA ban was confirmed.
This year's Huskies will be led by the backcourt of Boatright and Shabazz Napier. Junior forwards Tyler Olander and Niels Giffey and sophomore DeAndre Daniels, also saw playing time last season. R.J. Evans will play his final year of eligibility as a transfer from Holy Cross.
But the rest of the Huskies are relatively unknown commodities. Omar Calhoun was a highly sought after guard from Brooklyn, N.Y. He leads a recruiting class that also includes forwards Phil Nolan and Leon Tolksdorf.
"Committing to UConn wasn't just all about Coach Calhoun, and winning a national championship," Nolan said. "I knew we weren't going to be able to play for a national championship. But, UConn has so much history behind its name. The name and being part of that. It speaks for itself."
Daniels was the first player to cross the finish line Thursday, completing the course in 18:47, about a minute ahead of Boatright.
The run is a prelude to Saturday's first practice, which under Calhoun was legendary for its intensity and ability to stretch players to their physical limits.
Calhoun is gone, and the players say Ollie has a more player-friendly style. But Ollie said when it comes to pushing his players and emphasizing hard work, they are two suits cut from the same cloth.
"I might wear mine as a European cut, while coach might wear his a little loose," Ollie said. "It's going to be the same thing. It's defense. It's toughness. It's playing together."