Time for Huskies to rise up?
By the end of the week UConn could be right in the thick of the American Athletic Conference race.
Or the Huskies could be in big trouble, or somewhere in-between.
They begin an important and difficult two-game stretch tonight at No. 17 Memphis (12-3, 3-1). Tip-off time is 7 p.m. at FedEx Forum.
Then they host No. 18 Louisville (14-3, 3-1) on Saturday in Storrs. UConn stands at 13-3, 1-2.
"It's a big task." coach Kevin Ollie said. "But also when a big task comes, it's also a big opportunity, too. That's how we're looking at it. We're not looking at it as something we're scared of. We're going to meet our giant. We're not waiting for our giant."
"We're going to go meet them. It's going to be a hell of a task but it's going to get us ready for the tournament that's down there."
Memphis will serve as the host of the inaugural AAC Championship in mid-March. UConn has never played in the FedEx Forum. And there's little history between the two programs, meeting only once before in 2007.
Coach Josh Pastner has built a consistent winner, posting at least 24 victories each season in his first four years. They went 31-5 overall in their last season in Conference USA and reached the third round of the NCAA tournament.
The Tigers are a hot team, capturing 11 of their last 13 games including consecutive road wins at Temple and Louisville last week.
Their athletic and skilled backcourt - anchored by seniors Joe Jackson, Chris Crawford and Geron Johnson - is one of the best in the country and creates havoc on both ends of the court. Place UConn's dynamic guard duo of Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright in that elite category, too.
"Memphis is playing great," Ollie said. "I saw them beat Temple. It's a big challenge for us but I'm ready for it and I think our team is ready for it. If we play at a level five, I like our chances."
UConn played at a level five - the highest level in Ollie's book - in Saturday's 84-61 rout of Central Florida. It was a dominating performance by the Huskies, who received a surprising contribution from freshman center Amida Brimah (a career-high 20 points, eight rebounds, five blocks). They controlled the boards by a convincing 50-34 edge and consistently attacked for a change instead of relying on perimeter play.
Victories over UCF and Harvard last week restored UConn's confidence and provided valuable momentum heading into a critical week.
"I feel like we're in a great spot right now moving forward," junior DeAndre Daniels said. "I feel like we're back to playing UConn basketball. … We're having fun and not thinking. We're going out there just playing hard and playing with energy and just focusing on the small things."
Energy, effort and focus.
An abundance of all three will be necessary for UConn to pull out its first conference road win tonight. The Huskies were road kill in their first two conference games, losing at Houston Dec. 31 and Southern Methodist Jan. 4.
Memphis is ready to ruin UConn's road trip.
"We're locked in on a great Connecticut team…," Pastner said during his press conference with local media on Wednesday. "Coach Ollie is one of the best coaches out there. … They've got great players, two great guards. So we've got to bring our 'A' game."
Pastner also encouraged Memphis Nation to fill the FedEx Forum for tonight's game.
"This is a conference game, it's that much more important," Pastner said. "On top of that, it's on ESPN. … So let's pack the Forum."
UCONN at No. 17 MEMPHIS
Location: FedEx Forum, Memphis, Tenn.
Tip-off time: 7 p.m. (ESPN)
Records: UConn 13-3, 1-2; Memphis 12-3, 3-1
Last game: UConn beat Central Florida, 84-61, Saturday; Memphis won at Temple, 79-69, Saturday
Probable starters: UConn, 6-0 jr. guard Ryan Boatright (12.8 pts, 3.6 assists), 6-1 sr. guard Shabazz Napier (16.0 pts, 6.0 assists, 6.4 rebs), 6-8 jr. forward DeAndre Daniels (12.8 pts, 4.9 rebs), 6-6 grad. forward Lasan Kromah (6.6 pts, 2.6 rebs), 6-10 sr. forward Tyler Olander (2.3 pts, 1.4 rebs)
Memphis, 6-1 sr. guard Joe Jackson (14.7 pts, 3.9 assists), 6-3 sr. guard Geron Johnson (8.5 pts, 5.5 rebs), 6-4 sr. guard Chris Crawford (9.0 pts, 4.3 rebs), 6-8 fr. forward Austin Nichols (8.6 pts, 4.2 rebs), 6-9 so. forward Shaq Goodwin (13.2 pts, 7.1 rebs),
Noteworthy: Big week for Huskies who host No. 18 Louisville Saturday after visiting Memphis. … Tigers won five of last six. … Game pits two of the AAC's top backcourts. … Series: UConn lost only previous meeting, 81-70, in 2k Sports College Hoops Classic Championship at MSG in 2007. … Common foe: Florida (UConn won 65-64, Memphis lost 77-75). … Jackson unanimous preseason AAC first team pick. … Top reserve: 6-1 sr. guard Michael Dixon Jr. (11.3 pts, 2.3 rebs). … Hot: Napier shooting 92 percent (35-for-38) from foul line in last five games. Cold: Kromah converting 34 percent (13-for-38) from the field in last five games. … FedEx Forum will host inaugural AAC tourney in March. … Stat to watch: turnovers. Tigers forcing an average of 16.6 per game. … UConn 1-2 in true road games and 1-0 vs. ranked teams.
- Gavin Keefe
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