Kevin Ollie's Final Four berth validates Jim Calhoun's judgment

Head coach Kevin Ollie cuts down the net Head coach Kevin Ollie cuts down the net after defeating the Michigan State Spartans to win the East Regional Final of the 2014 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Madison Square Garden on March 30, 2014. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Elsa

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Greg Logan Newsday columnist Greg Logan

Greg Logan is a college sports and boxing writer for Newsday.

The postgame TV interview ended, his UConn players were bouncing up and down behind him wearing the NCAA East Regional "Champion" hats, and Kevin Ollie hugged his way through the crowd until he came to the patriarch of the Connecticut family, Jim Calhoun.

It was Calhoun who orchestrated his departure in such a way two years ago that the Connecticut administration had no choice but to accept Ollie as his anointed successor. Their reluctance was evident by the "interim" label attached to the job.

But there Ollie was climbing the ladder Sunday afternoon at Madison Square Garden to cut down the net after the seventh-seeded Huskies upset fourth-seeded Michigan State, 60-54, to earn a trip to the Final Four. They will meet No. 1 Florida, but as one of two teams to beat the Gators this season, they have good reason to believe.

Asked about the view from the top after all he overcame, Ollie smiled and said he took his time to enjoy it. "One step at a time," he said. "That's what you got to do to get up top of the ladder. You can't skip no steps. And the last two years, we didn't skip no steps."

It's only been three years since Calhoun climbed that ladder for the last time, winning his third NCAA title in Houston with the Kemba Walker-led 2011 team. He coached one more season, knowing sanctions were coming for a poor academic progress rate. It wasn't the way he wanted to go out, but he sure as hell was determined to pass the baton to a member of the UConn family he created.

Ollie had only two seasons of assistant coaching experience under Calhoun after a long NBA playing career. He admitted wondering if he would be better off staying in the NBA, if it was the right move to follow a legend at UConn, especially facing sanctions that banned the Huskies from the postseason last year. But he also considered Calhoun and the school his "second family" ever since he was recruited out of Los Angeles.

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"Coach always believed in me from day one," Ollie said. "And I thank him to death for it. And that's what I told him in his ear. 'Thank you for believing in me.' "

You think it wasn't a glorious day of vindication for Calhoun and his judgment? He was aglow with pride and that touch of Calhoun arrogance that either charms or alienates his critics.

"It says more about him, his character and how good he is," Calhoun said of Ollie. "It's nothing about Jim Calhoun. Trust me. I feel great for him. I never had a doubt. I just felt he was the right time and the right man. He's proved me and a hell of a lot of people right."

Reminded there really weren't a lot of people who agreed with his choice early on, Calhoun laughed it off. "They never believe what I say," he said. "He's always been a special kid. He's like a son to me. He's got character, he's got great knowledge of the game, he works exceptionally hard and he relates exceptionally well with the kids. And then he's got all UConn guys around him. So that fiber of UConn is not going anyplace."

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo praised Ollie for using center Phillip Nolan and forward DeAndre Daniels to hold the Spartans to a mere six points in the paint, doubling Adreian Payne inside and forcing him to take 10 of his 14 shots from three-point range. Daniels held Branden Dawson to five points and three shots.

"I thought it was a wrestling match in there," Izzo said. "They just brought them at [Payne] . . . I like what Kevin did. He learned from Jim. His teams play the same way, hard, tough. You can tell it's part of their DNA. I'm really impressed, really happy for him."

That his moment of triumph came at Madison Square Garden, Ollie said, "just puts a great bow on this gift."

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