Huskies have chance to boost résumé against Wildcats
STORRS — It was back to the basics for UConn over the past few days.
After a disappointing defensive effort in an otherwise decisive victory over UMass-Lowell on Tuesday night, head coach Dan Hurley warned that his troops needed to improve in that area. And fast.
“If we don’t get better, at that end of the court, quickly,” Hurley said Tuesday night, “we’re gonna be in deep trouble, beginning on Sunday.”
On Sunday, UConn (6-1) hosts Arizona at the XL Center (1 p.m., ESPN2) to complete the teams’ homeand-home series. The Wildcats topped the Huskies by 15 last season in Tucson.
Now, this isn’t a vintage Arizona team. In fact, this will be the seventh time the programs have faced each other and the first time that neither is ranked. Arizona had been ranked in all previous six encounters with the Huskies (though it lost five of them).
This year’s Wildcats (5-2) were decimated by a wave of de-commitments last year in the wake of the NCAA recruiting scandal that’s rocked the college hoops world, losing all four incoming recruits. But it’s still Arizona, a perennial Pac-12 powerhouse that is coming off a 30-point win over Georgia State on Thursday and whose only two losses have been out in Maui to current No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 8 Auburn.
“Arizona’s one of those teams that you always see making runs in the tournament, you see a lot of their guys in the NBA,” said senior guard Jalen Adams. “So, when you get a chance to play against them, it’s always fun and exciting. Especially for guys who are returning. They beat us last year, so we want to get revenge and even it up.”
And that means tightening up on the defensive end of the floor. Hurley said the team has spent the past several practices working on the type of fundamental defensive drills they did in the preseason. Grittier things, the coach said, to develop a tougher mindset — taking charges, sacrificing your body, not getting beat off the dribble.
“You’ll know we’re dialed-in the way we need to be, defensively, if we take three or four charges and we dive on the floor 10 or 12 times,” Hurley said following Friday’s practice. “Because that’s how we’ve got to play this year.”
While there may not be any one-and-dones on this year’s Wildcat roster, that could be a positive. Last year’s roster was flowing with talents like Deandre Ayton, Allonzo Trier and Rawle Atkins, yet got popped in the first round of the NCAA tournament. This year’s team, led by junior center Chase Jeter and talented guards Brandon Randolph and Brandon Williams, doesn’t boast the same overall size and talent, but ultimately could be more successful.
“Talented bunch of top-50, top-100 guys, just young at the two wingguard spots, but those two Brandons are super-talented, super-explosive scorers,” Hurley noted. “The point guard ( Justin Coleman) is a grad transfer, the four-man (Ryan Luther) has maturity. Obviously, they’ve had a brutal schedule ... they looked great (Thursday) night. They looked sharp on offense, shot the 3 well. It’s gonna be a hard game. They’re like a top-50 defensive team and a top-50 offensive team. If you’re not on top of your game, it’ll be a long game.”
As of Friday afternoon, about 1,000 tickets remained unsold, meaning there’s a good chance Sunday’s game will be a sellout. Hurley knows a big, boisterous crowd will be a big boost to his team. The Huskies also know that this is a good opportunity to knock off a big-name, likely NCAA tournament team. UConn has an impressive win over Syracuse (though the Orange were without their star point guard and are currently unranked). The following night, the Huskies got blown out by No. 14 Iowa.
UConn has two other big non-conference games later this month, against No. 15 Florida State in Newark, New Jersey on Dec. 8, then against defending national champ (and unranked) Villanova on Dec. 22 at Madison Square Garden. There will be a few chances at resume-boosting wins in league play, but not as many as usual, with the American Athletic Conference seemingly in a down year.
Bottom line: Sunday is a prime opportunity at home that the Huskies can’t let slip out of their hands.
“It would be a great win for us to beat Arizona, because of the conference they’re in and the tradition of their program,” said Adams. “And just for us — we want to win this game to show that we can compete with the best of them. Not only to prove to people on the outside, but to prove to ourselves that the win over Syracuse wasn’t the peak of our season. That we still have more growing to do.”