LaFleur feeling right at home with Friars

For the majority of his basketball life, Andre LaFleur's heart has belonged to the Huskies.

First, playing for the Northeastern Huskies under a brash young coach named Jim Calhoun and then 10 years on the UConn basketball staff, LaFleur has known nothing else.

That all changed last spring when LaFleur left UConn in April to join Ed Cooley's coaching staff at Providence College, shortly after the Huskies won the national championship.

Tonight he faces his old basketball family for the first time since becoming the associate head coach at PC when the Friars face UConn in a Big East game at the Dunkin Donuts Center in Providence (7 p.m., SNY).

"I really haven't thought about it," LaFleur said. "Probably before the ball goes up, it will be surreal. Then the competition itself will be the main focus."

LaFleur couldn't be happier in his new job.

His desire to move up the coaching chain led to his decision to jump from the UConn nest. Cooley, who left Fairfield to return to his home state, convinced LaFleur to become part of the rebuilding process in Providence.

The move has re-energized LaFleur. You can hear the excitement in his voice when he talks about the Friars' future.

"Things have been great," LaFleur said. "I'm loving it. I'm loving the change of scenery and new opportunity."

With only nine scholarship players, Providence (14-15, 3-13) has endured a pot-hole filled season.

A lack of depth has forced three players - the backcourt duo of Vincent Council and Bryce Cotton and forward LaDontae Henton - to play marathon minutes, each averaging at least 37 minutes per game. The Friars have struggled to close out games.

Effort remains consistent, though. Cooley has the Friars playing hard all over the court. What they lack in size they make up for with heart and hustle.

"We play hard," LaFleur said. "We compete and get after it. From rim to rim, we have to be one of the fastest teams."

UConn associate head coach George Blaney has been pushing for an all-out effort from the inconsistent Huskies (17-11, 7-9). They've lost eight of their last 11 games - seven without head coach Jim Calhoun - to jeopardize their NCAA tournament chances.

In a familiar pattern, UConn rebounded from a sluggish start and a double-digit deficit by playing a terrific second half against No. 2 Syracuse Saturday before losing 71-69.

"We've practiced really hard since the Syracuse game," Blaney said. "I haven't let up on them and told them flat out that if we can play for 20 minutes with the No. 2 team in the country as well as we did and have the ball with 13 seconds to go to tie it or win it we should be good enough to play anybody at anytime.

"I thought we had a pretty good mindset defensively in practice. We know that Providence probably with Marquette and certainly Syracuse run the break as well as anybody else in the league. They've proven that they can score against anybody and particularly score at home."

The Huskies realize what's at stake in the final two regular season games. Two wins would likely put them in a comfortable postseason position heading into the Big East tournament.

Anything less and they'll have some work to do next week.

"I don't think there's anybody that doesn't know that we need to win games," Blaney said. "You have to win games at this level. You can't just play well. So we need these two games coming up."

Providence is a difficult place to start a winning streak, especially for UConn, which has lost in its last two trips there. Another large vocal crowd is expected to be on hand to root for the Friars.

"We feel good right now," LaFleur said. "It is a big game. We know what the implications are for them. My 10 years at UConn, this has been a hard place to place to win. People are crazy about the Friars now."

g.keefe@theday.com

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