Connecticut's Tyler Olander, left, blocks a shot by Vermont's Luke Apfeld in the second half of an NCAA basketball game in Storrs, Conn., Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2012. No. 23 Connecticut won 67-49. Apfeld let Vermont with nine points. Olander had nine points and nine rebounds. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Everything that Olander did in his first two years at UConn were luxuries. The Huskies liked his shooting touch, but didn’t need it. The Huskies liked his rebounding and positional defense, but it wasn’t the difference between winning and losing.
Olander was the hustle player, the bit player and the role player on a team that won a national title – he played token minutes as a starter – and another that suffered a disappointing defeat in the Round of 64.
Things change rapidly and when Olander looks at what his responsibilities are with UConn this season they go from being a role player to being an anchor. In fact, how Olander plays likely will determine the course of UConn's season.
It's no secret that size is the Huskies' main concern this season and Olander remains right now the only true viable big man on the Huskies as they head to the Paradise Jam in the Virginia Island's on Friday to take on Wake Forest.
Olander is 6-9, 225-pounds and the only experienced post player on the size-challenged Huskies. In the first two games head coach Kevin Ollie has started DeAndre Daniels at the four spot, but that's more out of necessity as the athletic Daniels is more suited for the wing.
The reason for the rotation is simple. The Huskies have nowhere else to go on the frontline. Junior 7-foot center Enosch Wolf has the size the Huskies are looking for but hasn't progressed quickly enough to earn consistent time. Freshman Phil Nolan appeared in his first action on Tuesday against Vermont and showed enthusiasm and energy. Nolan is also rail-thin at 6-9 and 210-pounds and asking him to battle down low with college players this early in his career is asking a lot.
Wolf and Nolan are the only backups for Olander and have little experience playing big-time college basketball. That leaves UConn's once vaunted inside game to Olander, who has become a major piece for the 2-0 Huskies. Ollie is asking Olander to do everything: Rebound, provide scoring and become a presence in the paint defensively.
If Olander can't do it there is nowhere else to go.
Through the first two games – both UConn wins – the Huskies' strengths and weaknesses are easily visible. For all their speed and explosiveness in the backcourt, the Huskies have struggled up front. Against Michigan State, the Huskies have up 16 offensive rebounds and were out-rebounded 42-29 against the physical Spartans. On Tuesday in a 67-49 win over Vermont, UConn was still a minus on the boards – 39-32 – and gave up 17 offensive rebounds and 14 second chance points. UConn's defense has been magnificent in two games holding Michigan State and Vermont to 34.2 percent shooting overall. The key for the Huskies going forward is completing the defensive stands by securing the rebound and getting out on the break.
“Defense is rebounding,” Ollie said Tuesday. “It’s ending the possession with a rebound. So that 30 could have been 20. I know I’m being greedy right now but it is what it is. There’s going to come a time when we have to rebound.”
Olander remains the key. The junior forward is averaging 6.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game in two games and is coming off a nine points, nine rebounds and four blocks effort against Vermont. In the past, that would be a huge game for Olander, but this year Ollie and UConn are going to need even more. Olander was only 3 of 9 from the floor but took good shots in the flow of the offense at the encouragement of Ollie. Olander is also providing energy and defense on the floor and in 32 minutes made his presence felt.
Olander is being asked to become a core player and he is stepping into his role nicely after two uneven seasons.
“I just think he's doing a wonderful job,” Ollie said. “He's not a step slow. Last year he might have been a step slow...I just think he's playing with confidence and he's understanding his role on the this team.”
Olander has stepped into the pivot for the Huskies and wants to continue to bring energy and physical play. The Huskies might night win the battle inside, but the goal is to hold their own.
“If we play hard good things will happen,” Olander said Tuesday. “We may not win every game, but as long as we play hard, stay together and have the coaches back good things will happen.”
If the Huskies can find a way to rebound and get the ball out to their athletic guards in Ryan Boatright and Shabazz Napier on the break not only will good things happen, but great things will happen.