Huskies, N.C. State have date in the city

UConn is playing tonight in a marquee event on a national stage against the preseason Atlantic Coast Conference favorite at Madison Square Garden, which is called The World's Most Famous Arena.

Can you say big game?

Making its first appearance in the Jimmy V Classic, UConn (6-1) faces No. 25 North Carolina State (4-2) in a nationally-televised game. Tipoff is approximately 9 p.m.

"It's a big game," coach Kevin Ollie said. "It's an ESPN game. It's a game that we want to go out and display the different things that we've been doing as a group, as a basketball team and as a family. I think it will be a great opportunity for us to show what we're really made of."

In its only game against a ranked opponent this season, UConn played its best basketball, beating then-No. 14 Michigan State (66-62) in the season opener in Germany. Since then, the Huskies have struggled at times.

They treat these national games as a chance to showcase the program. The have been beened from the postseason this year, including including the Big East tournament.

They relish playing any game at the Garden.

"It's something big," junior Shabazz Napier said. "A lot of great players played there. Just to be on the court, it feels like the Apollo (Theater). That atmosphere just feels so crazy. Lights on you, everything else is dim and dark, you can't see any fans but you can hear their voices. That's basketball Mecca right there.

" It's a great place to play in."

It will take an Apollo Theater-worthy performance against N.C. State.

The Wolfpack are talented, explosive and feature a balanced lineup. Six different players average in double figures. They shoot a high percentage (52.5) from the field and attack the basket, scoring an average of 42 points per game inside the paint. Skilled forward C.J. Leslie is the preseason ACC player of the year.

The Huskies have to minimize their mistakes against a team with great athletes, according to Ollie.

"We've got to make sure we do all the right things on the offensive and defensive end to give us an opportunity to win the game," Ollie said. "We're going to go out there and play UConn basketball. We're going to play aggressive. We're going to play with effort, enthusiasm and energy. That's what we've been trying to stress.

"... We're going to have some problems. But if we play our basketball, they're going to have to stick with us, too. Hopefully, we can come in and be engaged and be in tune early. It should be a great game."

After starting out sixth in the preseason top 25, the Wolfpack have gradually slipped to No. 25, losing to quality opponents in Oklahoma State and Michigan.

N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried has his concerns about the Huskies. He watched tape of their win against Michigan State and came away impressed.

"They seem to be a guard-oriented team that's really quick," he said. "They're really getting up underneath guys and getting after them, so that maybe a little different than we've seen. So we've got to be prepared for that.

"This is a very talented team. It's also a team where I think those guys are excited about Kevin coaching them and they want to play well and hard for him. They've done a nice job this year so far. We've got our hands full."

The Huskies could receive a boost. Top reserve R.J. Evans, who's missed the last two games with a sprain near his right collarbone, has practiced the last two days. His availability will be a game-time decision.

g.keefe@theday.com

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