UConn men to face Saint Joseph's in NCAA opener

Mark Humphrey/AP Photo UConn coach Kevin Ollie will lead the seventh-seeded Huskies back into the NCAA tournament after a one-year postseason ban on Thursday against No. 10 Saint Joseph's of Philadelphia at the First Niagara Center in Buffalo, N.Y.

Storrs - UConn waited until almost the end of the Selection Sunday show to learn its NCAA tournament fate.

That was nothing compared to the painful wait the men's basketball program endured to return to postseason after being ineligible to compete last season.

"We were getting tight," junior Ryan Boatright said. "We were like, 'what's going on?' We had done enough during the year to make the tournament so we really weren't worried about not getting picked. We're glad to be in the tournament."

UConn (26-8) received the seventh seed in the East Region, facing No. 10 Saint Joseph's University (24-9), the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament champion, on Thursday at 6:55 p.m. at the First Niagara Center in Buffalo, N.Y.

It is the program's third NCAA appearance in the last four years and 31st overall.

"I was getting a little worried," coach Kevin Ollie said with a smile. "Two years ago we were the first one picked. We had to wait a little longer this time but it was great just to see your name back up there and knowing what these kids went through last year.

" It's going to be an exciting time for these guys. I just can't wait to step out on the court on Thursday and take care of this precious gift that we've got. Hopefully they understand that."

UConn has an NCAA history in Buffalo, beating Vermont and DePaul on the way to winning the 2004 NCAA title. It will be the first game against St. Joe's since 1989.

Ollie has set the bar high for the Huskies, making the ultimate goal winning a national championship. He feels good about the way they're playing coming off an AAC tournament run that ended with a loss to Louisville in the championship game on Saturday in Memphis.

If UConn beats St. Joe's, it plays No. 2 Villanova, an old Big East foe, or No. 15 Milwaukee on Saturday. Virginia, the Atlantic Coast Conference champion, earned the top seed in the East. Madison Square Garden in New York is the site of the regional semifinals and finals.

"I want us to get back up on the top," Ollie said. "For us to get back up on the top, we've got to win games of this magnitude. This is the start of the journey. We planted seeds last year and hopefully the seeds have grown.

"We have enough talent to win. I truly believe that."

Given what they went through last season, the Huskies should be hungry and highly-motivated to make a deep run.

It was too hard for them to even watch Selection Sunday last year knowing their school would not be called. They worked hard to return to postseason play.

"It just means so much because it was really disappointing for us not to play in the tournament last year," said senior Niels Giffey, one of three Huskies who played on the 2011 national championship team. "We just want to take the opportunity now. It was taken away from us last year for reasons that you can't influence as a player.

"We want to make the best out of it. The seniors are really excited to go back to the tournament."

The Huskies had no complaints about their seeding position as an at-large bid despite being projected as a five seed by several college basketball experts.

The AAC received little respect from the tournament selection committee, earning just four bids and leaving SMU out. And Louisville, the tournament tournament champion, received only a four seed as an automatic qualifier.

"I don't know what their criteria is," Ollie said. "It's always a little different every year. But I feel bad for (SMU coach) Larry Brown not making the tournament. Louisville, a four seed, that team beat us three times, I think they're one of the best teams in the country.

"But seeding doesn't matter. It's about what you do on the floor. Hopefully we can go to Buffalo and prove ourselves and hopefully get that first game and then worry about the second one. We're playing an old Big East foe if we can get past St. Joe's."

St. Joseph's is making its first NCAA appearance since 2008, earning an automatic bid by beating Virginia Commonwealth 65-61 in Sunday's Atlantic 10 tournament final.

g.keefe@theday.com

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