Huskies open up tournament play tonight

UConn coach Kevin Ollie speaks with an official during a game against Rutgers on March 5 at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs. Ollie and the Huskies open play in the AAC men's basketball tournament with a quarterfinal game against host Memphis tonight.
UConn coach Kevin Ollie speaks with an official during a game against Rutgers on March 5 at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs. Ollie and the Huskies open play in the AAC men's basketball tournament with a quarterfinal game against host Memphis tonight. Fred Beckham/AP Photo

Memphis, Tenn. — UConn makes its long-awaited return to the postseason party tonight after a painful year's absence.

The Huskies believe anything is possible if they play their best basketball.

Their first challenge is playing host Memphis in an American Athletic Conference Championship quarterfinal game at FedExForum. Game time is approximately 9:30 p.m.

Winning the inaugural conference championship is on their mind.

"We won some great games this season," coach Kevin Ollie said. "No reason not to believe. These guys have got the mindset that they can get it done and win three in a row against three great teams.

"First and foremost, we've got to take care of Memphis. They've been playing outstanding basketball the last couple of weeks. I don't think they lost on their home court since we beat them. … It's going to be a task. But if we stay together, I like our chances."

Fourth-seeded UConn (24-7) swept the regular season meetings, winning in two different ways. The Huskies gained some confidence from posting an 83-73 win at Memphis on Jan. 16 and grabbing an 86-81 overtime decision on Feb. 15.

The fifth-seeded Tigers (23-8) are 9-0 at home since that Jan. 16 defeat, including beating Louisville, a team that crushed UConn, 81-48, in the regular season finale on Saturday.

An enthusiastic crowd is expected to turn out to support Memphis tonight.

"To get to where you want to go, it doesn't matter if you're playing basketball or just life, you've got to face giants," senior Shabazz Napier said. "This is one of those giants.

"We've got to understand that Memphis is going to have a crazy crowd like they always do. … They've got a great coach and great guards. We've got to understand that this is one of the biggest giants that we're going to face this year. You've got to be ready to fight it.

"When you fight a giant and you win, you feel so much better. You feel uplifted. We all want that feeling so we've got to work hard for it."

To be giant-killers tonight, UConn has to execute its game plan.

The Huskies will try to inject some life into a sluggish attack that's averaged just 56.8 points and shot an icy 36 percent from the field in the last five games. Any turnaround starts with sharing the basketball and taking and making high percentage shots.

And Napier, the AAC player of the year, can't be the only reliable offensive weapon. UConn's young frontcourt has to make a decent contribution. No more time for growing pains.

"We need balance to win it all," Ollie said. "We need some big guys to step up a little bit more and give us a little bit more on the offensive and defensive end, especially rebounding."

Defensively, the Huskies need to limit transition baskets. The speedy Memphis guards will push the pace every chance they get and feed off those fast break points.

"If we want to win in Memphis, we've got to keep them out of transition," Ollie said. "We can't allow them to get easy buckets because that's an energizer for that team and for that crowd."

Memphis has the edge in postseason experience. Several key members of the Tigers won a Conference USA tournament title and appeared in two NCAA games last season.

The Huskies, on the other hand, have just five players with postseason experience and that came in 2012. This is also Ollie's first elimination game.

Napier gave his younger teammates a crash course in Postseason 101, explaining the sense of urgency. He compared it to trying to stay on the court playing a pick-up game at a crowded playground.

"You want to stay on the court as long as you possibly can," Napier said. "Guys understand that. Guys understand if you lose one game, you stay home and watch the games on TV. And nobody wants that feeling.

"Hopefully we just work our tails off and hopefully we play with a lot of effort."

g.keefe@theday.com

UCONN vs. MEMPHIS

Game: AAC tournament quarterfinal

Location: FedExForum, Memphis, Tenn.

Tip-off: approximately 9:30 p.m. (ESPNU)

Records: UConn 24-7, Memphis 23-8

Last game: UConn lost at Louisville, 81-48, Saturday; Memphis beat SMU, 67-58, Saturday

Probable starters: UConn, 6-1 sr. guard Shabazz Napier (17.8 pts, 5.2 assists, 6.0 rebs), 6-0 jr. guard Ryan Boatright (12.0 pts), 6-6 grad. forward Lasan Kromah (7.0 pts, 3.1 rebs), 6-9 jr. forward DeAndre Daniels (12.3 pts, 5.6 rebs), 7-0 fr. center Amida Brimah (4.0 pts, 2.8 rebs, 2.4 blks)

Memphis, 6-1 sr. guard Joe Jackson (14.4 pts, 4.6 assists), 6-3 sr. guard Geron Johnson (9.0 pts, 4.9 rebs), 6-4 sr. guard Chris Crawford (8.9 pts, 4.0 rebs), 6-8 fr. forward Austin Nichols (9.3 pts. 4.3 rebs), 6-9 so. forward Shaq Goodwin (11.9 pts, 6.6 rebs)

Noteworthy: First postseason game for Huskies since 2012. … UConn the four seed, Memphis No. 5. … Series: UConn leads 2-1, sweeping both regular season meetings, 83-73 at Memphis and 86-81 (OT) in Hartford. Napier averaged 25.5 points in those two games and Tigers scored half of their points in the paint. … Top reserve: 6-1 sr. guard Michael Dixon Jr. (12.2 pts). … Hot: Niels Giffey on pace to set school single season record for 3-point FG percentage, shooting 50 percent. Cold: Huskies averaging 56.8 pts and 36 percent from field in last five games. … Huskies 27-10 all-time in conference tourney when seeded better than opponent. … Napier needs nine assists to pass Kevin Ollie and move into third on UConn career list and six points to take over sixth on scoring list. … Winner advances to Friday's semifinal.

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