UConn faces a toughness test against No. 8 Cincinnati

Cincinnati forward Tre Scott (13) dunks against Memphis during a game on Jan. 27 at Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill))
Cincinnati forward Tre Scott (13) dunks against Memphis during a game on Jan. 27 at Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill))

Storrs — Past UConn-Cincinnati battles often were labeled as rock fights.

They're fiercely competitive games featuring physical, rough and rugged play.

The last team standing usually wins.

Looking at the current state of the two basketball programs, Saturday's game at Gampel Pavilion (noon, ESPN2) might end up being a lopsided fight.

No. 8 Cincinnati is living up to its preseason billing as favorite to win the American Athletic Conference. Winners of 13 straight, the first-place Bearcats (20-2, 9-0) are one of the nation's hottest teams. They've won by an average of 20.2 points per game.

UConn (11-11, 4-5) is heading in the other direction, losing four of its last five. Plus, the Huskies have not fared well against top 25 competition in recent years, dropping 11 straight, including four this season.

There's a long list of things that UConn has to do to have a shot at an upset.

"You've got to play tough," coach Kevin Ollie said after Friday's practice. "They're averaging like 14 offensive rebounds per game. You've go to protect the ball because they've got pressure, fullcourt and halfcourt. Before anything, you've got to rebound and you've got to hit them, because they're going to hit you if you sit back and just wait.

"We've got to be aggressive. We've got to take care of the basketball."

This is perhaps the most complete team in coach Mick Cronin's 12 seasons at Cincinnati.

Traditionally a stingy defensive team, ranking second in the nation in scoring defense (56.8 points per game) and field goal percentage defense (36.6) this season, these Bearcats are efficient and effective on the offensive end. Four starters average in double figures.

They own the best offensive numbers of Cronin's coaching era, with high marks for points and assists per game at 77.0 points and 16.5 assists, respectively, as well as field goal percentage (46.1) and 3-point field goal percentage (37.2).

And they're also experienced and, of course, physical and tough.

Just a matchup nightmare for the Huskies.

"It's a very tough team to play against," Ollie said. "We've got to play UConn style of basketball. ... We've got to protect our home. We've got to finish possessions with defensive rebounds and then that's when we're able to push (the ball), because you don't want to play their halfcourt defense all day."

The Huskies have had trouble scoring this season, especially when leading scorer Jalen Adams is shut down. In the last two games, he's had his lowest scoring two-game stretch this season, averaging just nine points. He's also committed 10 turnovers.

"In the past couple of games, I let opposing defenses get to me," Adams said. "Coaches have done a great job getting me in the film room. In the Temple game (Sunday), I had a couple of turnovers and just kind of faded out of the game. I've just got to stay aggressive and play my game."

It would be tempting for Cincinnati to overlook UConn.

The Bearcats almost stumbled against Houston on Wednesday, needing to rally from an 18-point deficit before winning 80-70.

Past rock fights have taught the Bearcats that the toughest team usually wins in their series with the Huskies.

"A lot of these guys on this team last year know how hard UConn played against us in the conference tournament," Cronin said. "Gary Clark had his teeth knocked out. So you better expect them to play with a lot of pride, as long as Kevin is standing over there.

"They may not make shots or whatever, but they're going to play with a lot of pride."

g.keefe@theday.com

UConn head coach Kevin Ollie, second from right, stands for the national anthem before a game against SMU on Jan. 25 at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
UConn head coach Kevin Ollie, second from right, stands for the national anthem before a game against SMU on Jan. 25 at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

UCONN vs. No. 8 CINCINNATI

Location: Gampel Pavilion, Storrs

Tip-off: noon (ESPN2)

Records: UConn 11-11, 4-5; Cincinnati 20-2, 9-0

Last game: UConn lost at UCF, 70-61, Wednesday; Cincinnati beat Houston, 80-70, Wednesday

Probable starters: UConn, 6-3 jr. guard Jalen Adams (17.6 pts, 4.6 rebs, 4.1 assists), 6-2 so. guard Christian Vital (14 pts, 4.8 rebs), 6-2 grad. guard Antwoine Anderson (6.6 pts), 6-8 r-jr. forward Terry Larrier (14.8 pts, 4.9 rebs), 6-9 freshman forward Josh Carlton (4.6 pts, 4 rebs)

Cincinnati, 5-10 jr. guard Justin Jenifer (5 pts), 6-5 so. guard Jarron Cumberland (10.9 pts, 3.9 rebs), 6-6 jr guard Jacob Evans III (13.9 pts, 4.2 rebs), 6-8 sr. forward Gary Clark (13.3 pts, 9.2 rebs), 6-9 sr. forward Kyle Washington (11.1 pts, 5.4 rebs)

Noteworthy: UConn 1-4 in last five games. Cincy won 13 straight, tying third longest active unbeaten streak in nation. ... Bearcats, preseason favorite to win AAC title, in first place, Huskies tied for 8th. ... Series: UConn leads 13-11, losing five of last six including last meeting, 81-71, in AAC tourney semifinals in March. ... Huskies 2-17 vs. top 25 foes since start of 2014-15. ... Only Bearcat losses to Florida, Xavier. ... Cincy out-scores foes by 20.2 pts per game, owns 9.1 rebound margin and No. 2 in nation in scoring defense at 56.8. ... Top reserve – East Hartford's Cane Broome, a St. Thomas More graduate, averages 8.1 pts, 3.3 assists. ...  Hot: Clark, AAC player of the year candidate, averaging 14.6 pts, 10 rebs in league play. Cold: In last two games, Adams 6-for-20 from field, 10 turnovers, averaging 9 pts. ...  Huskies 9-2 at home, including 5-0 at Gampel. ... Only Cincy losses to Florida, Xavier. ... UConn shot under 41.2 percent in each of last five games. ... Huskies 9-1 when out-rebounding an opponent. ... Up next: UConn hosts USF Wednesday in Storrs.

Gavin Keefe

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