Kevin Ollie stood at center court, barking out instructions to his Connecticut players. Just 30 feet to the coach’s right was Jim Calhoun, who was holding court with announcers Bill Raftery and Verne Lundquist.
It was fitting because Calhoun is never far away when UConn is involved.
The Huskies’ legendary coach is in Buffalo to watch his old team play in the NCAA Tournament. UConn will face Saint Joseph’s today after sitting out last year’s tournament because of academic sanctions.
“I’m happy to have us back in the tournament,” Calhoun said Wednesday in First Niagara Center. “The tournament’s pretty special for everybody.”
Calhoun, a special assistant at the university, retired from coaching in 2012 for health reasons. In recent years, he’s had cancer, spinal stenosis, a broken hip and a knee replacement, but the 71-year-old looks and feels good.
“Now I feel great, so you stand on the sideline and you say, ‘Hmmmm,’ ” Calhoun said. “No. I mean, I miss the kids and I miss the competition.”
This is Ollie’s team now, Calhoun said, but he’s never far away with advice.
“I give it when he asks for it,” Calhoun said. “When things aren’t going well, that’s when he needs me – actually, that’s a poor choice of words. He doesn’t need me. That’s when I’m there for him.”
Ollie and his players aren’t shy about picking the brain of the Hall of Famer, who won 873 games and three national championships.
“We talk about most everything,” said Ollie, who was a four-year starter for Calhoun in the mid-1990s and joined him as an assistant four years ago. “If it wasn’t for him giving me these opportunities, I wouldn’t be standing here today.”
Preparing to see UConn play in Buffalo brought back decades of memories for Calhoun. Connecticut began its run to the 2004 national title with first- and second-round victories in the arena. The former coach at Northeastern also competed with Canisius and Niagara in the North Atlantic Conference in the 1980s. The names Pete Lonergan, Nick Macarchuk, Andy Walker, Ray Hall and Mike Smrek rolled off his tongue with the ease of a layup.
“I loved it up here,” Calhoun said. “The people I loved. I loved the fact that when you met somebody, they cared about basketball. For me that’s very important, obviously.”
Almost 30 years later, Jay Wright still remembers all those trips to the Anchor Bar.
It was the 1984-85 season, and Wright was in his first year as an assistant coach at the University of Rochester. He would end his night with an order of wings at the Buffalo landmark after a long day of recruiting former Canisius High School star Rick Wnuk.
“I was in Buffalo for him every night,” said Wright, who will coach No. 2 Villanova against No. 15 Milwaukee tonight.
Wright was off on Wnuk’s first name - he called him Greg - but he gets some slack. It was 30 years ago, and he’s recruited thousands of players since then. Wright wasn’t able to land Wnuk, who went to RIT before transferring to Buffalo State, but it’s safe to say things have gotten better.
After two years at Rochester, he worked as an assistant at Drexel, Villanova and UNLV before landing his first head coaching job at Hofstra. He has a record of 407-233, including 285-148 in 13 seasons with the Wildcats.
“I loved living up here,” Wright said. “We were just talking in the back about how big Division III basketball is up here in upstate New York. I think it’s bigger than anywhere in the country.”
The last time Phil Martelli brought Saint Joseph’s to Buffalo for the tournament, he ruined a pair of sneakers stepping off the bus at Canisius College. He also won both games, so planning his itinerary for this trip was simple.
He took the team back to Canisius for practice.
“It’s ritualistic, it’s not superstitious,” Martelli said.
Saint Joseph’s was a nationwide darling in 2004. The Hawks started 27-0 behind point guard Jameer Nelson. They were a No. 1 seed that lost to Oklahoma State in the Elite Eight. They’re No. 10 this time and facing No. 7 Connecticut.
“Maybe a little different vibe,” Martelli said of the differences between Buffalo trips. “Not that you’re treated differently, but you could feel that. There was a lot swirling around our team.”
Milwaukee’s Matt Tiby is a Selection Sunday junkie who would sit with his parents and watch the bracket take shape. Seeing the Panthers pop up this year was a blast.
“It was just great to see our name to be up there,” Tiby said. “The past few years, you see the 14 and 15 seeds come out with victories.”
Indeed, it’s been chic to pick a No. 15. Florida Gulf Coast beat Georgetown last year, while in 2012 Lehigh upset Duke and Norfolk State beat Missouri. Seven teams seeded 15th have advanced since 1991.
John Vogl and Jay Skurski contributed to this report.