Huskies get back to business by hosting Rutgers in Hartford

Storrs - At the end of practice Saturday, Shabazz Napier called out to Kevin Ollie as the UConn head coach walked off the Gampel Pavilion court.

Napier wanted to show off his dunking skills. Taking off from the baseline, the point guard tossed up the basketball, grabbed it after one bounce and attempted a dunk.

He failed badly.

"That's really good, Shabazz," Ollie said.

The remark drew laughter from the remaining players.

It was one of the few light moments at practice on Saturday. The Huskies have been working hard during the lengthy layoff since losing at Pittsburgh on Jan. 19.

Practice ended Saturday with a spirited box-out drill.

"They're energized," Ollie said. "We had some great practices over this week layover and, hopefully, it transfers."

UConn begins a telling stretch of Big East games today, hosting Rutgers (12-6, 3-4) at the XL Center in Hartford (2 p.m., SNY). Four of their next five games are against teams with losing league records, giving the Huskies (12-5, 2-3) a chance to climb in the standings.

For the first time this season, UConn is dealing with a two-game losing streak. It's hardly panic time, but the Huskies want to prevent a minor slide from becoming an avalanche.

"We've got a good team in Rutgers coming, and we don't want to lose that game," Napier said. "We want to get back on track. This is the second half of the season, so you want to go out there and give it your all. Hopefully, we'll come out to play tomorrow and give fans a good show."

The break between games allowed Napier's sore left shoulder to heal a bit. After the injury hampered him against Pittsburgh, he took most of the week off before returning to practice on Friday. He only sat out the box-out drill Saturday.

Napier says he's a little better but still experiencing pain.

"It still hurts, especially when I'm sleeping," Napier said. "When I wake up in the morning, it hurts a lot. But (team trainer) James (Doran) is doing a great job getting me going."

Once Napier warms up, he says he feels good. He was told it would take two weeks from the time of the injury, which occurred Jan. 14 against Louisville, for the pain to subside.

"It is frustrating," Napier said. "It's teaching me to be patient, understanding that my health is important and making sure I'm ready to play 100 percent."

UConn will continue to take a cautious approach with Napier, following Doran's advice in regards to the junior's playing status.

The Huskies have other issues. They've yet to find a reliable third scorer and their rebounding woes are dragging them down.

Rutgers has hit a rut, losing three of its last four games. The Scarlet Knights run a three-guard attack and frustrate foes with a match-up zone. Sophomores Myles Mack (13.2) and Eli Carter (15.6) are the only players averaging in double figures.

"They have some outstanding guards," Ollie said. "They start a three-guard lineup, the same how we start. They have some good bigs. We're going to have our work cut out for us, just like every Big East matchup."

Rutgers coach Mike Rice has been impressed with UConn's effort playing in the face of a postseason ban.

"I think it would be difficult, especially with everything that coach (Jim) Calhoun and program that he has built and what their standards are," Rice said. "Kevin is doing a tremendous job, putting his guys in the best positions and how hard they are playing.

" You can't tell watching them on film. They're really playing hard and with passion and playing well together."

g.keefe@theday.com

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