Huskies face a tough task this afternoon

NCAA tournament talk is filling the airways this time of year.

It's hard to ignore.

Yet meaningful games still remain on the regular-season schedule, including in the American Athletic Conference.

In UConn's final three games, it faces two ranked teams, including No. 11 Cincinnati at noon today (ESPN) at the XL Center in Hartford. The Huskies also visit No. 7 Louisville on March 8 and host Rutgers on Wednesday.

"It's important, especially having three games left," graduate student Lasan Kromah said about today's game. "It would be good momentum if we get this win."

While UConn (22-6, 10-5) is in the safe zone as far as earning a NCAA bid, it could certainly upgrade its resume, move up the standings and improve conference tournament seeding position. The Huskies are tied for fourth with Memphis (21-7, 10-5), with both teams just behind SMU (22-6, 11-4).

Coach Kevin Ollie isn't worried about his team looking ahead to the postseason.

"Not with these guys. I'm not seeing it," Ollie said. "We need to win and we've got our own struggles to deal with. We're not worrying about the NCAA tournament. I think it really helped those guys not going to the tournament last year. They just kept playing. I think you could have looked at it both ways. We could have stopped and said, 'We're not going to the tournament.' And last year we didn't do that.

"It's just vice versa now. They're just playing basketball. That's why I love this group."

Cincinnati (24-4, 13-2) also has plenty at stake, sitting in a first-place tie with Louisville (24-4, 13-2). Coach Mick Cronin hopes that winning a regular season championship is his team's focus, not postseason.

"My concern right now is us feeling like we're ready to get into tournament time," Cronin said. "I find that a lot this time of year. I watch certain teams, it's almost like they have one eye on the NCAA tournament already and that's because there's so much talk in the media about it.

"… We've got a chance to win a conference championship. We've got to stay focused. We've done a great job playing every game like it's the only game on the schedule. … We've got to play Saturday like it's the national championship game."

Expect an all-out battle today between two mentally tough and experienced teams. Both teams lean heavily on their upperclassmen. The game will pit All-American candidates in UConn's Shabazz Napier and Cincinnati's Sean Kilpatrick, the top two scorers in the conference.

Kilpatrick was the difference in the first meeting on Feb. 6, chipping in 26 points and 12 rebounds in a 63-58 win. UConn played without junior DeAndre Daniels, who sat out with an injury but is healthy now.

Any game against Cincinnati usually comes down to grit, toughness and tenacity. The defensive-minded Bearcats, who rank fourth in the country in scoring defense (57.4 ppg.), generally make life miserable for opposing teams. They've allowed 70 or more points just twice.

"We've got to rebound a lot and just play harder," freshman Amida Brimah said. "We've got to play with more heart."

UConn almost pulled off an upset in the first game, taking an eight-point lead in the second half, but it eventually crumbled in the face of Cincinnati's relentless defensive pressure. The Huskies expect to suffer through some scoring droughts today but can't let that take them out of the game.

"We know we're going to have scoring droughts and they're going to have scoring droughts," Ollie said. "It's not going to be a 90-point game, we know that. During those droughts can you stop the other team, can you keep rebounding and can you stay solid?

"Hopefully we'll be that team."

• In other news, Napier was named one of 10 national semifinalists for the Naismith Trophy award. Kilpatrick and Louisville's Russ Smith also made the list, giving the AAC more players than any other conference.

g.keefe@theday.com

No. 11 CINCINNATI at UCONN

Location: XL Center, Hartford

Tip-off time: noon (ESPN)

Records: Cincinnati 24-4, 13-2; UConn 22-6, 10-5

Last game: Cincinnati lost to Louisville, 58-57, Feb. 22; UConn won at South Florida, 61-56, Wednesday

Probable starters: UConn, 6-1 sr. guard Shabazz Napier (17.8 pts, 5.5 assists, 5.9 rebs), 6-0 jr. guard Ryan Boatright (12.6 pts, 3.5 assists), 6-6 grad. forward Lasan Kromah (7.2 pts, 3.0 rebs), 6-9 jr. forward DeAndre Daniels (12.6 pts, 5.5 rebs), 7-0 fr. center Amida Brimah (4.1 pts, 3.0 rebs, 2.5 blks)

Cincinnati, 6-1 jr. guard Ge'Lawn Guyn (4.8 pts), 6-4 sr. guard Sean Kilpatrick (20.5 pts, 4.5 rebs), 6-7 so. forward Shaquille Thomas (6.9 pts, 2.8 rebs), 6-7 sr. forward Titus Rubles (7.0 pts, 6.4 rebs), 6-8 sr. forward Justin Jackson (11.3 pts, 7.0 rebs)

Noteworthy, Fourth-place Huskies won five of six. Bearcats dropped two of four and tied for first with Louisville. … Series: UConn leads, 8-5, losing 63-58 on Feb. 6. Kilpatrick had 26 points and Huskies played without Daniels. … Top reserve: 6-5 jr. Jermaine Sanders (5.9 pts, 3.4 rebs). … Cincy off to best start in coach Mick Cronin's eight years. … Kilpatrick leads AAC in scoring and Napier second while Jackson first in blocks (3.1). … Hot: Reserve Niels Giffey averaging 11 pts and 8-for-13 from field in last two games. Cold: Cincy holding opponents to league low 57.4 points. … Huskies 3-2 vs. ranked teams. … Bearcats 6-1 on road in AAC. … Up next: UConn hosts Rutgers Wednesday on Senior Night in Storrs.

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