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Ollie, UConn move to Big East slate

Updated 10:34 pm, Monday, December 31, 2012
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MILWAUKEE -- The first stop in UConn's last true Big East go-around took Kevin Ollie to a familiar spot.

As he stepped into Milwaukee's Pfister Hotel, Ollie greeted the bellhop with a handshake and a hug.

"I stayed in this hotel for about a month and a half," said Ollie, who played for the Milwaukee Bucks in 2002-03. "You know those make-good contracts, you didn't want to come in and buy a house."

A decade later, Ollie has indeed made good on a long-term deal, this one for the next five years as head coach at UConn. After guiding the Huskies to a 10-2 start in the non-conference, Ollie's attention now shifts to the most competitive league in America (at least before it disbands in the coming years). The Big East grind, equal parts mental and physical, starts tonight at Marquette (8 p.m, Bradley Center).

"You grow in life and this will be another growing step for us," Ollie said. "I want to see how (the young guys) respond, of course, and I want to see how I respond, how our coaching staff responds. It's going to be a good test."

The Golden Eagles (9-3) are a deep, backcourt-oriented team that boasts 10 players who average at least 14.5 minutes per game. As always, Marquette is plenty physical: point guard Junior Cadougan is 6-foot-1, 205 pounds, and center Devante Gardner, who averages 12.5 points and five rebounds per contest, is a beefy 6-foot-8, 290. Of Marquette's rotation players, only one -- sophomore shooting guard Todd Mayo -- weighs less than 200 pounds. Conversly, four out of UConn's five starters fall below that mark.

"With Marquette, you just have to match their physicality," said UConn guard Ryan Boatright. "They always play physical and they always play hard. No matter who's there, you have to come to play hard and you have to play strong."

If UConn is worried about Marquette's brute strength, then the Golden Eagles are concerned with the Huskies' uptempo style.

"I think they're extremely fast -- like really, really, really fast," said Marquette coach Buzz Williams, who will sit out tonight while serving a team-imposed one-game suspension. "We'll have our hands full, but we can't make it into a track meet because we'll lose. We have to handle their speed."

UConn's backcourt, Shabazz Napier in particular, was productive -- at times superb -- in the non-conference. Boatright has made 29 of his last 44 field goal attempts, and freshman Omar Calhoun has picked it up, too. After two duds versus Michigan State and North Carolina State, the 6-foot-5 shooting guard dropped a team-high 14 points on Washington, his first strong effort against a quality opponent.

"Omar is a good player," Ollie said. "All the games are learning experiences. He's just new to this Division I level of basketball, so he just had some bad games against N.C. State and Michigan State. I wouldn't say he doesn't show up in the big games. He just had some bad games and it happens like that sometimes."

In the Big East, there isn't much margin for error. Boatright said that UConn, which unraveled at the seams in a 79-64 loss to Marquette year ago, must be "physically and mentally fit." Naturally, Ollie felt the same way.

"It's a mental grind," he said. "This is going to be a grind-it-out game, not a non-conference game. It's two foes that know each other and it's going to be a test of wills. Hopefully our will prevails."

kduffy@newstimes.com; @KevinRDuffy