NEW YORK — Kevin Ollie was taking the first steps down a road very few have traveled with success, the hazard-filled, replacing-the-legend road. There at the start was Tom Izzo, who had done it.
"The thing that sticks out to me," Ollie said. "He just said, 'Be yourself.' I can't be Coach Calhoun, I can't build his program from 1986 when he arrived. I can't do that. But I can be Kevin Ollie, I can take some great life lessons I learned, build on them and try to create my own, forge my own program going forward. … I just appreciate coach Izzo for what he's done, the culture he's built at Michigan State and how he's kept it going after Jud."
Izzo, who replaced program-builder Jud Heathcote at Michigan State in 1995, has done so, taking the Spartans to six Final Four appearances. Ollie assumed control of the Huskies when Jim Calhoun retired and drew Michigan State as his first opponent in the well-watched Armed Forces Classic at Ramstein Air Base in Germany on Nov. 9, 2012. The Huskies pulled an upset, and set a tone for Ollie's first season — and beyond.
"He's going to have a phenomenal career," Izzo said, "and keep that tradition that Jim built so well at UConn, keep it going."
They meet again Sunday, with Ollie much farther down that road and the stakes much, much higher. The Huskies and Spartans, both 29-8, meet in the East Regional final at Madison Square Garden at 2:20 p.m. The winner goes to the Final Four.
"It's all about toughness," Ryan Boatright said, "They're going to come out and try and punk you, they're big down low, they've got strong guys on the floor. They've got big guards, so it's all about toughness, mental and physical."
When these teams met in Germany 2012, the Huskies, beginning the season with the knowledge that they would be ineligible for the postseason, took heavily favored Michigan State by surprise in the giant hangar-turned-arena, jumping out to a 16-point lead and holding on to win, 66-62.
"What most impressed me with Kevin, and most disappointed me in myself, is that his team came out and played with incredible passion," Izzo said. "What did I get out of that game? Kevin's teams are going to play hard, and will play disciplined. I don't think we have given them enough credit for how good they are defensively."
Izzo, 59, had been Heathcote's assistant for 12 years, through the Magic Johnson and championship years. Heathcote is still a presence and, in fact, texted Izzo Saturday morning after the fourth-seeded Spartans had advanced to the Elite Eight with a two-point victory over top-seeded Virginia. In the earlier game, the No. 7 Huskies eliminated No. 3 Iowa State 81-76 as Calhoun and his family watched from behind the UConn bench.
"I've known Jim a long time," Izzo said, "and he wanted Kevin to have the job. He told me that the summer before. I think it's how the former [coach] handles it. We're going to have pressure on us to try to live up to certain things, but how the guy before us handles it — in Jud's case, he's been so supportive. I got a call from him this morning, he's still coaching my team after 19 years. And I accept that and I actually enjoy that."
"He's going to find that it's so much easier to keep it going because all those great players they've had, he's part of them, he knows that and he's never really left there."
Ollie, 41, has put his stamp on the Huskies. He took over at a time when several players were transferring, or leaving for the NBA; conference realignment was leaving the school on the outside looking in; and there was the ban from postseason play due to sub-par academic (APR) scores.
UConn gave Ollie a seven-month contract and, after that first game, Izzo called for UConn to extend it, something that came seven weeks later.
"I did it because, A, they beat us," Izzo said, "B, I liked the way he handled himself and the way his team played and, C, Jim Calhoun had told me what an incredible coach he was going to be."
Now, in just his second season, Ollie, with a 49-18 record, has the Huskies one win away from the Final Four, where Calhoun led the program four times.
Michigan State poses a formidable obstacle. Adreian Payne, 6 feet 10 and 240 pounds, and Brandon Dawson, 6-6 and 225, both score in double figures and rebound more consistently than any of UConn's big men. The Spartans hold opponents to 39.8 percent shooting, 37.6 percent during the NCAA Tournament.
"It's going to be a dogfight," UConn's Shabazz Napier said. "We don't expect them to back down, and I hope they don't expect us to back down."
Izzo called Napier and Boatright "the quickest guard tandem in the country," but is also concerned about DeAndre Daniels, who had 27 points and 10 rebounds against Iowa State, his latest breakout game.
"I think our guys know you don't get to the Elite Eight if you're a one-dimensional team," Izzo said, "but just to help us out, Daniels had one of those games that says, 'Hey, don't forget the other guys.'"
So it's a match of two of the most successful programs of the past 30 years or so, both with a reputation for toughness and tournament-readiness, and both with coaches who have taken the baton from the builder and carried it gracefully forward.
"As a coach, I wanted to make the right decisions," Ollie said. "I wanted to stay hungry, but I always wanted to stay humble."Copyright © 2015, RedEye