UConn should get a tough test from Florida

Storrs - Judging from their practice habits since returning from a short Thanksgiving holiday break, the Huskies are in a proper frame of mind to face a formidable foe.

They'll put their undefeated record on the line tonight while playing their first ranked opponent this season, hosting No. 15 Florida at 7 p.m. at Gampel Pavilion.

Coach Kevin Ollie is confident that No. 13 UConn (7-0) is ready for the challenge.

"We worked the turkey out of them and the stuffing out of them, so it was good," Ollie said of his team's practice work ethic. "They came in ready to go and had three great days of practice so I feel confident that we'll come out there and play very well.

"It's a great opportunity. I want these guys to understand that, playing in front of our fans. It's just a great moment that we have to seize."

UConn will take on an athletic and talented Florida team that has overcome a lack of depth to race out to a 6-1 start, only losing on the road to No. 20 Wisconsin.

The Gators are riding a five-game winning streak, beating Florida State (67-66) Friday despite playing with only seven scholarship players.

"Great team…," Ollie said. "It's a ranked team, and it's in our house. We want to protect our house. We have to build on what we've already created and just keep playing good basketball. Keep playing UConn basketball."

The Huskies have grown from playing a challenging early season schedule, beating two Atlantic Coast Conference teams in Boston College and Maryland and a Big Ten team in Indiana. The three wins came by a combined four points.

"We're getting tested to show our will and our execution at the end of games in order to win big and close games," junior Ryan Boatright said. "The more that we do that early in the season and if we win, the better we're going to be when it comes closer to March."

UConn can add to its resume by beating Florida tonight. The Gators will likely be shorthanded with guard Kasey Hill (10.3 points) and swingman DeVon Walker (4.0 points), two starters, both battling injuries. They sat out Friday's game against Florida State.

But Florida is still dangerous and experienced. Senior Casey Prather is having a break-out season, averaging 19.1 points. Senior Patric Young, a 6-9, 240-pound center, provides an inside presence and sophomore guard Michael Frazier II is the team's top perimeter threat. The Gators also attack the boards and play tough defense, allowing just 60.3 points per game.

"They go after every rebound," Ollie said. "They try to punch it inside, but then they'll attack the paint, so we've got to keep them out of the paint and we want them to take contested twos and even threes. … They're well-coached. They play a pressure defense."

The backcourt match-up appears to favor the Huskies. Florida coach Billy Donovan hasn't ruled out Walker playing but he's not counting on him. Reserve guard Eli Carter, a Rutgers transfer, will be available but is hobbled by an ankle injury.

"We lack depth in the backcourt, "Donovan said. "With that being said, we're going against maybe one of the premier backcourts in the country, so it's going to be a great challenge for our team and in particular our backcourt in this game."

This is the first game of a home-and-home series. UConn will travel to Florida next season. The series makes sense for two national programs looking to play elite non-conference competition.

"I know they're going to be good next year," Ollie said. "It's good for us to have these kinds of opponents on our schedule. … Hopefully, we can win this game and go back down there and try to win next year.

"But this year we've got to take care of business here. It's just a great venue. I love this place. It's going to be loud and it's going to be packed Monday and it's going to be a nice experience for our guys."

g.keefe@theday.com

No. 15 FLORIDA at No. 13 UCONN

Location: Gampel Pavilion, Storrs
Tip-off time: 7 p.m. (ESPN2)
Records: Florida 6-1, UConn 7-0
Last game: Florida defeated Florida St., 67-66, Friday; UConn beat Loyola (Md.), 76-66, Tuesday
Probable starters: UConn, 6-0 jr. guard Ryan Boatright (11.7 pts, 4.6 rebs), 6-1 sr. guard Shabazz Napier (15 pts, 7.7 rebs), 6-5 so. guard Omar Calhoun (9.4 pts), 6-8 jr. forward DeAndre Daniels (13.4 pts, 4.3 rebs), 6-10 so. center Phil Nolan (3.1 pts, 2.3 rebs)
Florida, 6-2 sr. guard Scottie Wilbekin (9.5 pts, 7.5 assists), 6-4 so. Michael Frazier II (14.4 pts), 6-6 sr. forward Casey Prather (19.1 pts, 5.7 rebs), 6-8 sr. Will Yeguete (5.4 pts, 5.1 rebs), 6-9 sr. Patric Young (9.3 pts, 5.0 rebs)
Noteworthy, First game of a home-and-home contract, with UConn playing in Gainesville next season. … Huskies playing first top 25 opponent this season. … Four of Florida's first 10 games versus ranked foes. Lost to No. 20 Wisconsin on Nov. 12 … Series: UConn lost only other meeting, a 69-60 overtime decision in 1994 NCAA Sweet Sixteen. Kevin Ollie had six points in that game. … Gators held rebounding edge in its last five games. … Top reserve: 6-8 so. forward Dorian Finney-Smith (11.8 pts, 8.6 rebs). … Gators won five straight. … Depth an issue for Florida due to injuries. .. Hot: Niels Giffey shooting 68 percent (15-for-22) from 3-point range. Cold: Calhoun just 6-for-26 in last four games. … Napier leads the teams in points, rebounds, assists (43), steals (12) and turnovers (19). … Up next: UConn hosts Maine Friday in Hartford.
— Gavin Keefe

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