Tyler Olander was a shell of a player through the first part of his junior year.
The junior forward knows the Huskies are thin inside and it's up to him to be the rock with the loss of Andre Drummond, Alex Oriakhi and Roscoe Smith to the NBA Draft and transfers this offseason.
Olander, early on, couldn't handle the load for the Huskies.
He entered Big East play averaging a meager 4 plus points per game and about 4 rebounds per game. Not only was he struggling shooting, he and the big guys inside have had to deal with the indignity that the starting point guard in Shabazz Napier is leading the team in rebounding.
The season is long and there is plenty of room for improvement. That's something that head coach Kevin Ollie has always stressed to his team.
That brings us to Saturday at Purcell Pavillion in South Bend, Ind and UConn's 65-58 win over No. 17 Notre Dame.
Connecticut forward Tyler Olander drives the lane in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Notre dame Saturday, Jan. 12, 2013, in South Bend, Ind. Olander scored 16 points as Connecticut won 65-58. (AP Photo/Joe Raymond)
Ollie's had the long view all season, perhaps because that's the only tact he can take to sell it to the players, and that vision is being rewarded. On Saturday the long game paid off for the 12-3 Huskies, who entertain Louisville on Monday.
Olander put on a stunning performance against Notre Dame with a career-high 16 points on 8 of 9 shooting and showcasing the versatile offensive game that attracted UConn's interest in him years ago. Olander, 6-8 and 225-pounds, is a left-handed player with a nice shooting touch, good footwork and an excellent skill level for a player his size.
"I just wanted Tyler to go to work down there. I know what he can do on the offensive end," head coach Kevin Ollie said. " It was a matchup where he could get deep post position. We went to a couple of our favorite plays when we saw the matchup. Shabazz (Napier) did a good job of recognizing it and our coaching staff did a great job of recognizing it and we just went in to him. He made some plays. He made some plays on the pick-and-roll and once you get a couple of layups, that rim got real big for him and he started shooting jumpers and just doing what we know T.O. (Tyler Olander) can do and I'm real proud of him."
What he was missing is confidence and rhythm. He started to show it on Tuesday in a rout of DePaul with 10 points and five rebounds in 16 minutes. Olander was aggressive in that game and went to the free-throw line five times.
It laid the foundation for Saturday's affair where the Huskies ended Notre Dame's 12-game winning streak and beat the Irish for the second straight time. Notre dame is 46-2 over the last 48 games at home. Both losses are to UConn.
Olander had driving layups, a post-up hook shot, rebound tips and his bread-and-butter -- pick and pop jumpshots that were taken with rhythm and confidence.
The play inside of Olander, who also added seven rebounds and anchored the interior defense, helped the Huskies hold a 30-22 edge on the boards. He also managed to help control Notre Dame star to a mediocre 14 points and nine rebounds, both below his average. Olander was the best big on the floor as the Huskies stunned the Irish winning the rebounding battle.
"I didn't look at the matchup and say, 'I'm going go off and have a great game.' I knew Jack Cooley is a great player. He's having an outstanding year. I just told myself to go out, play hard, try to limit his rebounds and keep him off the boards. I guess good things happen when you play hard," Olander said to the Associated Press.
UConn and Olander's progress the last two weeks is remarkable. The Huskies were dominated on the boards in the first half against Marquette in an eventual overtime loss. They stopped the bleeding in the second half against Marquette and then dominated DePaul 49-29 on Tuesday. The Huskies backed it up with a + 8 against an excellent rebounding team against Notre Dame.
A lot of that was Olander, who boxed out, guarded the rim and provided and offensive and defensive presence in the middle.
It was a long-time coming from the Storrs native who was a token starter when UConn won a national championship as a freshman. He played well early on last season before faltering and began this season as the most experienced big man on the team. He faltered early and struggled with his confidence.
The games are tougher now, but Olander has awoken in Big East play. Olander has scored 26 points in the last two games after only scoring 24 points in the previous seven games.
"It's definitely very rewarding. Things weren't really working out for me at the beginning of the season. I stuck with it and kept working hard and got into the gym. It feels good to finally have hard work paying off," Olander said.
It's been a rough start to his junior year, but Ollie has never lost faith. He has always expected Olander to play like he did on Saturday. It was now up to Olander to believe he could do it, and he broke out on Saturday at an opportune time.
Daniels regroupsLost in Olander's stunning performance was an excellent reclamation project from DeAndre Daniels. Daniels, coming off a career-high 26 points against DePaul, was a no-show in the first half against Notre Dame with zero points and zero rebounds.
He showed up big in the second half and finished with eight points and nine rebounds. That type of production helped the Huskies scored 36 second half points as he and Olander helped carry UConn early in the second half.
The usage of Olander and Daniels was also designed well. The duo weren't scoring by accident, but were having plays set up for them in the offense to exploit mismatches. Daniels blew by his slow-footed defenders on one play for a layup and also had a post-up hook shot as the Huskies attacked weak-points in the Notre Dame defense. Olander also was set-up to take advantage is his defenders as he created several open shots that he took comfortably in the offense.
* Shabazz Napier, fresh off his snub on the Cousy Award finalist list had 19 points and only one turnover. Napier has only one turnover over the last two UConn games and has scored 37 points and dished out 13 assists in that span.