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Today is a landmark day at the University of Connecticut, where the school's president, Susan Herbst, announced that she has hired a new athletic director. He is Warde Manuel, a 43-year-old former football player at the University of Michigan who spent the last six years serving as the AD at the University of Buffalo. Manuel replaces not only Jeff Hathaway, who was forced out of the position last summer, but also Paul Pendergast, who had served as an interim AD while Herbst conducted her search.
From the standpoint of UConn men's basketball, Manuel's hire should provide some stability. Good thing, too, because this program is approaching a perilous and uncertain time. Consider:
The Huskies have lost six of their last seven games to drop to 5-7 in the Big East (15-9 overall). Their prospects for an NCAA at-large bid are better than those numbers would indicate. UConn is ranked 21st in the RPI, it has five wins over teams in the top 50, and it boasts the number one-ranked strength of schedule. However, if this slide continues the Huskies would be in danger of becoming just the fifth NCAA champion since the tournament expanded in 1985 to fail to qualify for the tournament the following year.
Coach Jim Calhoun still has not returned from the leave of absence he was forced to take because of a lower back condition. That raises yet again the question of whether Calhoun, who is three months shy of his 70th birthday, will (or should) retire for the sake of his long-term health.
Last week, the NCAA predictably denied UConn's appeal for a waiver that would allow the Huskies to play in the 2013 NCAA tournament. The team is currently ineligible because it failed to meet standards that are set forth as part of the NCAA's Academic Progress Rate. UConn's appeal of that decision will now be heard by an outside subcommittee. These things are difficult to predict with certainty, but based on conversations I've had with people at UConn and inside the NCAA, it's highly unlikely UConn will be granted this waiver. Which means it is highly unlikely the Huskies will play in the 2013 NCAA tournament.
Despite its abysmal performance of late, this UConn team has two underclassmen, freshman center Andre Drummond and sophomore guard Jeremy Lamb, who are projected to be lottery picks in this year's draft. If those guys are even considering coming back next season -- and I'm guessing they aren't -- then the specter of not being able to play in the tournament could tip the balance the other way.
If UConn can't play in next year's NCAA tournament, then its lone returning senior, 6-foot-9 forward Alex Oriakhi, would have the opportunity to apply for a waiver that would allow him to transfer to another school and compete right away. That is what typically happens in infractions cases where a player is denied a postseason opportunity for his remaining seasons of eligibility.
Right now, UConn only has one recruit committed for next season. He is Omar Calhoun, a 6-3 guard from Brooklyn. Calhoun is a good player but he's no one-and-done; Rivals.com ranks him the 38th-best player in his class. If Calhoun doesn't return and/or UConn isn't allowed to play in the tournament, then the player could ask to be released from his letter of intent.
Whenever Calhoun decides to retire, there is no obvious replacement. He currently has three assistants on his staff with head coaching experience, including two (Karl Hobbs and Glen Miller) who played for him. Yet, Calhoun has made no secret of his belief that another assistant, Kevin Ollie, should get the job.
Ollie is certainly head coaching material. He was UConn's point guard from 1991 to 1995, and he squeezed every ounce of his abilities to enjoy a 13-year career in the NBA. Ollie is smart, charismatic and energetic, so he has all the assets you'd look for -- except experience. He has never coached a big-time game, nor does he have an extensive network of contacts in the recruiting world. He isn't even coaching this team in Calhoun's absence. That responsibility has fallen to associate head coach George Blaney. Being the head basketball coach at the University of Connecticut is a big job. Is Ollie truly ready for it?
That is the question that Manuel will have to answer someday. He could be the AD at UConn for the next 30 years and never face a more important decision. Does Manuel hand the reins to a guy with no head coaching experience? Or does he risk alienating Calhoun and the fan base by plucking someone from outside the family?
The situation UConn basketball faces reminds me of the one at Indiana when Tom Crean was hired in 2008. That came in the wake of the Kelvin Sampson firing, which left the program with just one scholarship player -- and he was a former walk-on. Four years later, Indiana is just now fighting its way back to relevance.
With all due respect to UConn, it is not Indiana. That school had a championship tradition that extended well beyond Crean's predecessor. UConn, on the other hand, does not. Jim Calhoun is UConn basketball. He came to the wilderness of central Connecticut 26 years ago and engineered one of the most remarkable building jobs in the history of college sports. This man would be hard to replace under the best of conditions, much less at a time when the program is bereft of players.
For now, Jim Calhoun is still the head coach, which means UConn basketball has a fighting chance. Yet, on this landmark day for the university, it's hard to shake the lingering sense of uncertainty. This is a strong, proud, championship program, but it appears to be headed for a long, cold walk back into the wilderness.
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