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Can Kevin Ollie save UConn from irrelevance?

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UConn going wrong way under Ollie (0:35)

The UConn basketball program has been undergoing a downward trend under head coach Kevin Ollie. (0:35)

STORRS, Conn. -- When Peter Satonick hoisted the "FIRE OLLIE" sign at the XL Center just prior to UConn's matchup last month against top-ranked Villanova, there was no backlash from the other fans in the student section. No revolt. In fact, nearly all were in agreement: It's time for a coaching change.

A basketball program that is fewer than four years removed from its third national championship in 11 seasons, a surprise title won in its first full year under revered former UConn point guard Kevin Ollie, has become largely irrelevant on the court.

What's wrong with UConn?

Most observers will note that the fall from grace has tracked closely on the timeline alongside UConn's association with the American Athletic Conference, a league that is a far cry from the Huskies' place of residence during the halcyon days of the Big East.

After a losing record last season, a middling one (12-12) this year, and the recent news of another NCAA investigation, those same observers have come to consider whether Ollie has become UConn's bigger problem.

For anyone closely associated with UConn basketball, the notion of Ollie's removal is a painful notion to consider.

"Great guy," former UConn guard Rodney Purvis said.

"I love KO," added another former Huskies player, Rod Sellers.

And that's generally the same for anyone who has gotten a chance to know Ollie, whether it's former teammates, ex-players, or those who went against him.

But when it comes to on-court success -- UConn would be headed for a fourth consecutive season without an NCAA tournament berth if not for a 70-foot prayer by Jalen Adams in the 2016 AAC tournament -- the tenor often changes quickly.

"Nobody wants to fling dirt on a family member," one ex-Husky said. "But at the end of the day, I want what's best for the program and Kevin's not what's best for the program right now."

ESPN spoke to more than 30 former players, coaches and others close to the program about what's wrong with the program -- namely, the product on the court, the recruiting classes and Ollie's leadership.

Struggles on the recruiting trail

When UConn was one of the most feared programs in the country, Jim Calhoun was known for scouring the country to pull in highly touted recruits and then developing that talent. Calhoun produced more than 30 NBA players in his tenure; just six seasons ago, the Huskies boasted a team with three future NBA players: Andre Drummond, Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier, and others who are making money playing the game in Ryan Boatright, Alex Oriakhi and DeAndre Daniels.

The current roster includes Adams, Terry Larrier and a number of players who were recruited to be secondary options but have been forced into roles that they don't seem equipped to handle. The team would have perhaps been more apt to handle a challenging nonconference slate with a healthy Alterique Gilbert -- Ollie's prized recruit in a class two years ago that ESPN ranked ninth in the country. Gilbert has missed most of the past two seasons with shoulder injuries. But even amid the highs and occasional lows of the Calhoun era, the Huskies' success never hinged on one player. And it's that void of talent where most of the criticism of Ollie is directed.

"This UConn team wouldn't win any league in the country, including the America East," added one high-ranking NBA executive.

Ollie, however, dismisses that analysis.

"In our league, we're fine," he said. "We've got to keep fighting, gotta keep getting better. It's not the two hours we're in practice; it's 22 outside of practice. We're seeing as a coaching staff what we need, and we're out on the recruiting trail getting it. We love our guys that are in that gym, [who are] fighting with us each and every day.

"The biggest thing when they feel the ship is sinking, the rats jump off first and the scavengers jump off first. We're not scavengers, we're not rats. We staying right on the damn boat."

Ollie's sentiments clearly placed him in the minority, however.

"You have to put this on KO," one former UConn player said. "There's just not enough talent."

Ollie was once regarded as a big-time recruiter, one who as an assistant used his West Coast connections to bring DeAndre Daniels to Storrs, as well as another California standout in Daniel Hamilton. Since then, the well seems to have dried up.

UConn's 2016 class was heralded, but Gilbert is on his fourth shoulder surgery. Vance Jackson and Juwan Durham transferred, and a fourth top-100 player from the class, Mamadou Diarra, hardly sees the floor.

Last year's class -- Josh Carlton, Tyler Polley, Isaiah Whaley and Kwintin Williams -- was a far cry from UConn's standards. It was the first time since 2007 that the Huskies didn't land a single top-100 player. Williams chose the Huskies over Big West schools.

Ollie was in the mix for current Kentucky freshman Hamidou Diallo and also had a verbal commitment from freshman guard Makai Ashton-Langford, who ended up choosing Providence. Sources with direct knowledge of both recruitments said Ollie's lack of effort cost him in both cases.

Diallo played 26 miles away at Putnam Science Academy, but one source close to the recruitment said that Kentucky's John Calipari went to see him as many times despite having to get on a plane to do so, and also recruiting him for about half as long. A source close to Ashton-Langford's recruitment said Ollie went to see him play just once his senior year, and that played heavily into him re-opening his recruitment.

"If you don't get out to see kids as much as other guys, it makes it much more difficult to evaluate them," added a former UConn assistant.

Next year's class includes James Akinjo, Lukas Kisunas and Emmitt Matthews. Akinjo played well at the Peach Jam last July and currently checks in at No. 97 in the ESPN 100. Kisunas is averaging about 10 points and eight rebounds at Brewster Academy and is considered by most as a reach for UConn. Matthews, a 6-foot-7 Tacoma, Washington, native, is ranked as the No. 55 small forward in the country by ESPN.

"The next recruiting class is critical," one ex-UConn coach said.

Some have pinned the recruiting struggles on the profile of the American Athletic Conference. Others think that's a cop-out.

"The argument that the league hurts doesn't really fly because look at Cincinnati and SMU," a former UConn assistant said. Cincinnati and SMU may not be getting an abundance of ESPN 100 recruits, but the Bearcats have found success by evaluating and developing players while SMU has thrived off transfers. The Bearcats are 52-13 over the last three-plus seasons in league play while SMU is 50-15. Even Tulsa (41-25) and Temple (40-26) have had more success than UConn (35-30).

Talent drain out of Storrs

UConn lost three players this past offseason: big men Juwan Durham (No. 52 in the ESPN 100) and Steven Enoch as well as Vance Jackson (No. 78), a 6-foot-8 skilled wing. Durham didn't play much as a freshman after rehabbing from injuries in high school. Jackson, who averaged 8.1 points and 26 minutes per game as a freshman, met with Ollie after last season and wanted to know what the plan was for him to be able to develop into more than just a spot-up shooter.

"Get in the gym," Ollie said, according to a source close to Jackson.

"[Jackson] wanted a clear plan going forward," the source said. "He didn't want to transfer, but there was no plan."

Ollie has responded to the talent drain by investing heavily in the transfer market.

Ollie added Rodney Purvis from NC State in 2013, as well as George Washington grad transfer Lasan Kromah. Two years later, the Huskies brought in a pair of grad transfers who were eligible immediately -- Sterling Gibbs (Texas and Seton Hall) and Shonn Miller (Cornell), in addition to Larrier. All five were proven double-figure scorers prior to arriving in Storrs.

This past offseason, Ollie added a trio of transfers: Cornell grad transfer David Onuorah (5.0 PPG, 6.8 RPG), Fordham's Antwoine Anderson (11.1 PPG) and Eric Cobb (2.1 PPG, 3.4 RPG), who had been dismissed from South Carolina following a suspension. The additions have not formed the foundation of any real success for the Huskies.

"There's nothing wrong with taking transfers, but now UConn is taking guys that just aren't good enough," an American Athletic Conference coach said.

The Huskies have lost talent from the coaching staff as well.

First there was the head-scratching move by longtime UConn assistant Karl Hobbs to leave Ollie's staff in April 2016 to go to Rutgers. Hobbs signed a two-year deal at Rutgers worth $300,000 per year, but to leave one of the most successful programs in the country for Rutgers, perceived as a dead-end destination, was curious at best.

Then, this past offseason, Ollie fired Glen Miller, another longtime "UConn guy." Miller was Calhoun's assistant from 1986 to 1993, and had been on staff since 2010. According to multiple sources, Miller had the staff's best overall relationship with the players. He lived nearby and was always available to work them out individually, even late at night. He also was a relentless recruiter.

As these moves played out, Ollie lost his connection to Calhoun, the program's all-time icon and someone who could help Ollie's cause on a number of fronts.

Those close to the situation told ESPN that Ollie's relationship with Calhoun has been "fractured." The two have spoken more recently, but there was a long stretch when Ollie rarely reached out to Calhoun.

"I love the program. I love UConn. I'm rooting for Kevin Ollie," said Calhoun, who declined to go further in depth about the current state of the program.

The product on the court

UConn currently ranks 349th out of 350 teams in assists, and 225th in offensive efficiency, per KenPom.com. The only other time since 2002 that UConn had an offensive efficiency outside of the top 100 was in 2007, when the Huskies ranked ninth in the country in defensive efficiency. This year's team ranks 115th in defensive efficiency.

Ball movement has been an issue, but there's also that question of whether Adams has any confidence giving the ball to teammates that just haven't made shots.

Calhoun's teams didn't always have skill, but they consistently boasted toughness. They were relentless on the glass and on the defensive end. They took on the blue-collar approach of their head coach. That hasn't been the case with this group.

"We know we've got to play a lot harder," Adams said recently. "I think it all comes down to toughness. We have the players."

"It wasn't good. No sugarcoating it at all," sophomore guard Christian Vital said of the effort at times this season. "Especially being here, and seeing all the guys who came before us and allowed us to have what we do, our practice facility. We've got to take it more personal and I think the whole team is starting to do that."

A program once notorious for its effort on defense has seen that part of its reputation erode as well.

Under Calhoun, UConn was perennially one of the nation's top offensive rebounding teams. Since 2013, the Huskies have been lackluster on both the offensive and defensive glass.

"They lost their identity," an ex-UConn coach said.

Can Ollie help the Huskies find their way back?

Ollie certainly has supporters around the program, who believe the Calhoun comparisons are unfair, and that as a relatively young head coach, Ollie still needs to be given time to get his feet underneath him.

"It's not fair to compare anyone to a top-five coach," one of UConn's most prominent boosters said. "I stand 100 percent behind Kevin until something happens."

"It can easily be turned around," said Shonn Miller, who played for UConn in 2015-16 after transferring from Cornell. "I feel like they have the talent, and that KO is a great coach. I loved playing for him."

Ollie inherited a program that was banned from postseason play in 2012-13 because of academic shortcomings, and has now posted perfect scores in three of past four years in the NCAA's Academic Progress Rating. Ninety percent of the seniors who have played under Ollie have graduated (only one has not), and three of the four graduate transfers have earned their master's degrees.

"Kevin deserves credit for turning around the mess he inherited academically," a UConn athletic department member said.

Athletic director David Benedict, who came from Auburn in March 2016, didn't hire Ollie, but did hand him a five-year deal on Nov. 10, 2016 worth $17.9 million. When Benedict took the job, there was speculation that Ollie was heavily in the mix for the Oklahoma City Thunder job, largely because of his relationship with former Thunder star Kevin Durant. Benedict declined to speak to ESPN for this story but recently said Ollie's situation would be re-evaluated after the season.

UConn is on the hook for $3.3 million next season, $3.6 million in 2019-20 and $3.7 million in 2020-21. One factor that could play into whether the school decides to make a change after this season is finances. The state is facing a multibillion-dollar deficit over the next couple of years that is top of mind for many Connecticut residents.

Many within the industry see Ollie's salary as an albatross.

"KO's a great guy," one former UConn assistant said. "But he's not getting paid $3 million to be a great guy."

It's possible that the NCAA investigation gives the university and the state an out -- if Ollie is implicated in NCAA violations, he could be fired for cause, which would negate the buyout. One source told ESPN there is a chance that the two sides also could come to an agreement after the season, with Ollie walking away with a portion of the money.

Ollie, however, remains focused on the season.

"We're gonna keep fighting. I know I got heart, I know this program got heart," Ollie said. "We're not buried, we're not buried. Everyone can write that, but we're not buried. We gonna keep going forward and get this to another level. Hopefully, time will tell, and this struggle -- it wasn't a struggle, it was a setup for us to get better."