The NCAA’s Final Four kicks off Saturday with the seventh-seeded Connecticut Huskies looking to upset the top-seeded Florida Gators, while the second-seeded Wisconsin Badgers will try to hold off the eighth-seeded Kentucky Wildcats.
The only top 10 draft prospect still in play may be Kentucky’s Julius Randle, but the Lakers should keep their other eye on a potential candidate -- Connecticut Coach Kevin Ollie.
In just his second year as head coach of the Huskies, Ollie has exceeded expectations. The 13-year NBA veteran seems destined to coach his way back to the association.
The Lakers (25-50) are coming off a down season, decimated by injuries. While Coach Mike D’Antoni isn’t necessarily to blame for the miserable year, he doesn’t exactly have the support of the fans.
With another guaranteed year on his contract, D’Antoni may very well coach the Lakers next season -- but the team may consider making a change this summer.
The decision to exit D’Antoni is intrinsically tied to replacing him. There’s no reason to cut him loose without the right hire in his stead.
Ollie is the coach the Lakers should target to succeed D’Antoni.
Although he never played for the Lakers, Ollie played his high school ball in South Central Los Angeles at Crenshaw High. After a college career as a player with Connecticut, Ollie rejoined his alma mater as an assistant under Jim Calhoun for two years in Connecticut, before taking over the program last season.
As a rookie coach, Ollie was named the Ben Jobe National Coach of the Year by CollegeInsider.com after a 20-10 season. He improved this season to 30-8, getting past Michigan State (fourth), Iowa State (third), Villanova (second) and St. Joseph’s (10th) for the Final Four berth.
With an impressive, albeit brief, coaching record at Connecticut, but no NBA experience on a bench, why Ollie for the Lakers?
In addition to what he’s done in two years on the college level, Ollie is well respected among NBA players.
In his final season as a player, Ollie put in a year with the Oklahoma City Thunder (2009-10), making a significant impression on All-Star Kevin Durant.
“Kevin Ollie, he was a game-changer for us,” said Durant to Bill Simmons in February, during All-Star weekend. “He changed the whole culture, I think. He might not say it, but I think he changed the whole culture in Oklahoma City.”
In 2008-09, the Thunder won just 23 games. The following season, Ollie’s lone year with the franchise, Oklahoma City made the jump to 50 wins, losing in the first round of the playoffs to the Lakers in a six-game series.
What was it about Ollie that made such a difference?
“His mind-set, his professionalism every single day,” said Durant. “And we all watched that. We all wanted to be like that.”
The Lakers are looking for their next star, with Kobe Bryant’s career winding down. Durant is expected to be a free agent before the 2016-17 season, something the Lakers are well aware of.
Durant may not leave Oklahoma City. Ollie may not leave Connecticut.
“It’s a five-year contract,” said Ollie to ESPN.com in 2012. “I’m looking at it like I can be the coach here for 20-25 years.”
The opportunity to coach the Lakers might lead Ollie to reconsider his long-term plans.
The Lakers are likely to have enough cap space to make a run at Durant, once Bryant’s $25 million comes off their books after the 2015-16 season.
Having Durant’s one-time mentor in place could give the Lakers an edge should Durant choose to move on from Oklahoma City.
Despite the Thunder’s dominance of the Western Conference in recent years, and trip to the NBA Finals in 2012, if the team doesn’t win a title by 2016, Durant may indeed look for new opportunities.
If he’s someone the Lakers are seriously planning to target, Ollie is the man for the job.
Even without Durant, Ollie will be a strong coach in the NBA, should he choose to leave Connecticut.
The Lakers have been in a tailspin all year. Perhaps given a healthy roster, D’Antoni can turn the team around next season -- if the fans don’t chase him out of town before he gets the chance.
Letting D’Antoni go without having the right replacement in place may not achieve much long term, other than appeasing the fans temporarily.
If, however, the franchise can get Ollie out of his Connecticut contract, they need to get that done.