Published October 12, 2012
STORRS, Conn. – The Connecticut men's basketball team can't play for a national title this season. The Huskies still want to put on a show.
They got their first chance Friday night in the program's annual First Night, the unofficial kickoff to the practice season, which featured the traditional slam dunk contest, a 3-point shooting competition, music, dancing and pyrotechnics.
It also gave former coach Jim Calhoun, who retired last month, one final chance to address the Husky fans. He was in the building briefly, but did not make an appearance on the court. Instead, he addressed the crowd in a taped message shown on the scoreboards and passed the baton to new coach Kevin Ollie.
"I'll always be a part of UConn basketball, I'll always be rooting for UConn basketball," he said. "But this is your night. It's your First Night. Have a great journey the entire winter. Go get 'em Huskies."
The crowd of about 7,000 towel-waving fans gave Ollie the night's loudest ovation as he was introduced, and interrupted his speech to the crowd by rhythmically clapping and chanting his name.
"He's passing the baton to me, but I don't feel like he's behind me," Ollie said of Calhoun. "He's beside me and we're running together in this race."
UConn didn't qualify academically for the NCAA tournament and is also banned from the Big East tournament.
Paul Jankco, 42, of New Hartford brought his 8-year-old son Jacob. He said he's anxious to see if the hard-nose style Ollie played with as a point guard at UConn will translate to the team.
"It's hard to follow a legend, but I think he is going to be really good," he said. "He'll be able to relate to the players a little bit more, and he's really got nothing to lose."
Women's coach Geno Auriemma, who had a notoriously icy relationship with Calhoun, said he's been a big Ollie supporter since he was a player here in the early 1990s.
"I remember how hard he worked and how low maintenance he was," he said. "Watching Kevin work and watching him work the players out last year, and watching his career in the NBA and how it evolved. I just think those are the kind of people you need to root for."
Auriemma women's team is expected to compete for an eighth national championship this season. First Night was the fans' first chance to see Auriemma's highly touted recruiting class, which includes former national high school player of the year Breanna Stewart, who competed in the dunk contest.
"This year, from Day 1, we had a great preseason," Auriemma said. "That's made all the coaches and the players feel really, really anxious to get started."
Women's sophomore star Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis won the 3-point competition and men's freshman Omar Calhoun had the night's best dunk, going between his legs with the ball on the way up.
Ollie also made some news off the court, when he added another former UConn player to his staff. Ricky Moore, the co-captain of the 1999 championship team, becomes the program's assistant director of basketball administration.
Moore joins Ollie, Kevin Freeman, Glenn Miller, and Karl Hobbs as former Husky players on the staff.
"The kids should be able to go to a coach and know that he's had this experience," Moore said. "The kids shouldn't feel this is impossible to do, going to class, whatever. We've been through it."