DALLAS — He wanted to give them a sniff. Sure, there was time to kill on the UConn basketball team's trip through Texas. And Kevin Ollie, born 41 years ago in Dallas, is one of those loud, proud, obnoxious Cowboys fans eager to see Jerry Jones' $1.3 billion tribute to sporting opulence.
The UConn coach also wanted to give his team a sniff of what could be in April. So on Thursday, he brought his boys over to Arlington to Jerry World, aka AT&T Stadium, site of the 2014 NCAA Final Four.
"Just to see the place," Ollie said Friday after practice at SMU's Moody Coliseum. "I'd never seen it. The team had never seen it. We had a couple of Giants fans and Shabazz Napier is a Patriots fan. They were still taking pictures. Jerry World, that's a great place."
"I know I had a couple moments where I looked around and said, 'Man, wouldn't it be great to have UConn on that big Jumbotron up there? Niels Giffey's name being called out in the starting lineup, Shabazz's name, their pictures up there.' Hopefully, those guys got a little feeling of that. … Hopefully, the guys reflect that we've got to work very, very hard and not have slip-ups like Houston."
Ollie's only complaint? With the Cotton Bowl there Friday, the giant Cowboys star wasn't on display.
"It was a great time," Giffey said. "It also was motivation. It was kind of bittersweet. You really get pissed at the way you approached the last game. We just let that game slip. "
While in Houston, the UConn bus went past Reliant Stadium, the site of the Huskies' 2011 national championship victory over Butler.
"I saluted it," Ollie said.
Ollie did not salute the 75-71 New Year's Eve loss to the Cougars in an AAC opener in which UConn fell behind by 21 points in the first half. The No. 17 Huskies, who figure to drop further in the polls, are 11-2 heading into the SMU game Saturday. It is no exaggeration to say that they could easily be 13-0 or 7-6. The total point differential in six games in which they went 4-2 is 11, less than a field goal. It's also no exaggeration to call SMU an important game.
With UConn getting as high as No. 9 in the polls a few weeks back, it isn't absurd at all for Ollie and his players to dream of a return to Dallas. With Napier and a backlog of late-game heroics, anything is possible with these Huskies. Without an inside game, conversely, anything is possible with these Huskies.
So it was interesting to hear Ollie say immediately after the loss to Houston, "I'm going to try to find some tough guys." When asked about it Friday, however, he went to great pains to explain that he wasn't looking for anybody to go Klitschko.
"Toughness is not going to go punch somebody," Ollie said. "Toughness is going to set a screen. Toughness is running back on defense. Toughness is boxing out. That's toughness to me. It's not beating on your chest or going to fight somebody."
"If somebody takes it that we've got to be these big, bad guys with leather coats on, that's not toughness to me. Toughness is being consistent. Were we consistent [against Houston]? No. We didn't rebound. We didn't get back on defense. We didn't go through our plays. Toughness is recognizing who you are and doing it over and over again even when you don't feel like doing it."
We saw what Stanford was able to do in the second half at the XL Center. A big, strong, experienced team, with a formidable zone, is problematic for the perimeter-oriented Huskies. Houston was different. There have been slices of wavering effort in games, but UConn had escaped them. This time UConn didn't. There was sleepy offense, matador defense in the first half and when that happened, the Huskies, who can intimidate most anyone with speed, looked slow.
Ollie said he needs Napier, who had 25 of 27 points in the second half, to be intense the whole game. He said he needs DeAndre Daniels to pick it up. He did not absolve himself.
"I can go down the whole list," Ollie said. "I've got to pick it up. I might have to smash two clipboards instead of one [like in Houston]. But good teams have road bumps. They identify them and solve the problem."
"You see the iceberg and you see 10 percent of it. Below the water line is the big mass. Some things I don't see. Are you thinking about the scouting report? Are you watching tape? Are you doing things that are unseen? If you're not thinking about the game, not thinking about your matchup, your body, your sleep, it's not going to work. I want these guys to be professionals. Professionals do it over and over and over again. There's no slippage in practice no matter if you're tired or don't feel well. You're the same way all the time."
Moody Coliseum, which opened in 1956, will be reopened Saturday after a yearlong $47 million renovation. The game is a sellout and fans will be able to purchase beer for the first time at an SMU athletic event. Ollie will go against mentor Larry Brown, who coached him with the Sixers. Dikembe Mutombo is expected to be in attendance. It's not certain if Allen Iverson will be. It should be loud and emotional.
More important, Brown has a good rebounding team. UConn does not. In what seems like a never-ending attempt to find the right 5 man, Ollie is looking at starting Tyler Olander for the first time this season. Phillip Nolan, Amida Brimah and Olander have combined for 6.0 rebounds a game, fewer than guard Napier's 6.5. Brimah is a shot-blocking machine, but is prone to instant foul trouble and his offensive game is in its infancy. Can Ollie afford to play him a bunch to develop? Or does he have to nurse the 5 spot through the NCAA Tournament? It'll be fascinating and maddening to watch.
"We came out lackadaisical in Houston," said Ryan Boatright, the one guy Ollie praised for a complete Houston game. "Lack of energy. Lack of intensity. We thought we were going to come out and they'd just roll over and they punched us in the mouth. We fought to get out of that hole, but we didn't fight hard enough."
"If we come out again like that, we're going to get blown out of the gym every game. It's going to be embarrassing."
While at Jerry World, the players sat in one of the 342 luxury suites of the nine-story facility, visited the locker rooms of the Cowboys and, yes, the Cowboys cheerleaders. They went on the field, saw the $1.2-million scoreboard hanging 90 feet above. They contemplated the 100,000 fans who could be at the Final Four.
"It was incredible," Boatright said. "We know where the court is going to be, right there on the 50-yard line. It's going to be an amazing feeling if we can get back there."
Moody Coliseum, by contrast, is a cozy place, sitting fewer than 8,000. On Friday, workers were still putting on the finishing touches. Wires were hanging. Drills were buzzing. Like the Huskies, it is a work in progress. And for the Huskies to get back to Dallas in April they will have to be Ollie tough.
"Man, 0-2 on this road trip would be terrible," Boatright said. "Bad in the league. Bad for the record. Bad for the RPI. And flying home with K.O. 0-2 would be terrible. We've got to come out with a win."