ARLINGTON, Texas — When Kevin Ollie took his basketball game 3,000 miles from Los Angeles to Storrs in 1991, it became immediately clear that life on the court would be different.
Ollie, like every hot recruit, was a scorer at Crenshaw High. At UConn, there were other guys capable of putting the ball in the basket — Chris Smith during Ollie's freshman season, Donyell Marshall throughout his career, and Ray Allen for Ollie's final few seasons at UConn.
"I found out that those guys can score more," Ollie said. "I had to understand a way to get in the rotation. For me, it was playing defense."
That path is common for UConn guards and it's playing out during this year's run to the national championship game. In 2014, it's Ryan Boatright playing the role of the kid who's changing games on the defensive end.
Boatright averaged 31.2 points as a senior at East Aurora High in Illinois, scoring as many as 63 points in one game. He has displayed offensive skill throughout his three years at UConn, averaging 12.7 points.
But what has distinguished Boatright is his relentless defense. Boatright (6 feet) and fellow guard Shabazz Napier (6-1) are undersized, but their speed and quickness on defense have been game-changing throughout the tournament.
To longtime observers of UConn basketball, it's just the latest chapter in program history.
"I like what Kevin did, he learned from Jim [Calhoun]," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said after his team was upset by UConn at Madison Square Garden last week. "His teams play the same way, hard, tough. You can tell it's part of their DNA over there. And I'm just, I'm really impressed."
Calhoun said Sunday that Ollie's defense is the most obvious link from UConn past to UConn present. The offense, Calhoun said, has Ollie's fingerprints all over it as UConn adapts to the talent on the roster and to its particular opponent.
But the defense, from the style and approach to the specific terminology, is the same as it was 25 years or so ago.
"Cliff Robinson, who played for me [1986-89] and played 19 years in the [NBA], would know that terminology," Calhoun said. "Some of this stuff doesn't change. … Clearly, the fiber and the hard work is the same."
The UConn overall team defense is predicated on speed, and Ollie has recently deployed a smaller, more athletic lineup to both generate offense and turn the tide on defense. As the Huskies climbed back from an early 12-point deficit against Florida Saturday, Ollie used guards Boatright, Napier, and Terrence Samuel along with DeAndre Daniels (6-9) and Niels Giffey (6-7).
On defense, UConn's guards stifled Florida's Scottie Wilbekin, who averaged 13.1 points this season. Wilbekin scored just four points and turned the ball over three times.
Another Florida guard, Kasey Hill, had four turnovers. Overall, Florida shot 38.8 percent (19 of 49).
"We just wanted to be relentless, make them uncomfortable," Ollie said. "We wanted to challenge every dribble, every pass."
And that will be the game plan Monday night against Kentucky. The Wildcats have size and talent up front, led by 6-9 Julius Randle (15.1 points, 10.5 rebounds). But they also pose a challenge in the backcourt with the Harrison twins, Aaron (13.9 points) and Andrew (10.9).
The brothers are 6-6 and quick. Aaron has scored the game-winning shot in each of Kentucky's past three wins, including a three-pointer with 5.7 seconds left in the victory over Wisconsin on Saturday.
"First of all, we want to get back in transition," Ollie said. "That's our No. 1 key every game, especially against them. They got a lot of great athletes. They use their quickness, their speed, their jumping ability, to get inside the paint. So we want to locate, want to get back, want to keep them in front of us, and then play solid defense. We want to limit the penetration and make them shoot over the top."
Much will be expected of Boatright, whom Calhoun has called "The Glove." Like former NBA all-star Gary Payton — famously known as "The Glove" — Boatright plays a smothering, aggressive style of defense and he'll need to take that approach against Aaron Harrison.
"My main thing is making the offensive player uncomfortable," Boatright said. "Me being a great offensive player and knowing I can score the ball at any level, for me, the main thing is being comfortable. So I know if someone can get me uncomfortable, it makes me frustrated and stuff like that, so I know going into the game I can make him uncomfortable and irritate him, at any point, or get him fatigued. If you get fatigued, you make mistakes."