UConn men host No. 8 Wichita State in AAC opener

Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall, who has guided the Shockers to eight straight NCAA tournament appearances and a No. 8 national ranking this season, brings his talented team to the XL Center in Hartford at noon Saturday to make its American Athletic Conference debut against UConn. (Travis Heying/The Wichita Eagle via AP)
Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall, who has guided the Shockers to eight straight NCAA tournament appearances and a No. 8 national ranking this season, brings his talented team to the XL Center in Hartford at noon Saturday to make its American Athletic Conference debut against UConn. (Travis Heying/The Wichita Eagle via AP)

Hartford — UConn will attempt to pull the welcome mat out from under an American Athletic Conference newcomer on Saturday afternoon.

To do so, the Huskies will have to be less of a doormat than they've been against quality competition at times this season.

They can show they're much better than their inconsistent play indicates by securing a statement-making win against No. 8 Wichita State (10-2) on national television before their largest home crowd of the season.

Let's see how the Huskies (7-5), who've lost three of their last four, respond in their AAC opener at noon at the XL Center (noon, Ch. 3). Only about 1,000 tickets remained as of Friday.

They've stumbled in two previous tests against top 25 competition, losing to Michigan State and Arizona by an average of 17.5 points.

"Hopefully, we come out with the passion and the pride that UConn fans know we have and that they want to see," coach Kevin Ollie said. "It's going to be a great crowd, a great game.

"This is what you come to UConn for — to play on CBS, to play against a top 25 team. And we've got to play possessed."

AAC play offers a fresh start for UConn, which was selected fifth in the league's preseason poll.

The Huskies are coming off a disappointing two-game road trip that included a competitive loss at No. 18 Arizona and a brutal 25-point defeat at Auburn. They're undefeated at home (6-0) this season.

"Going into conference play is a whole new mindset," sophomore Christian Vital said. "We're not the most happy with record right now. But we're 7-5 and we're just looking to build.

"We played well at Arizona and then we kind of went the opposite way at Auburn. But it's all about the recovery. Since we've been back from our break with our families, we had a few days of good practice so hopefully we'll have a good game team-wise."

The Shockers, picked second (by one vote) behind leader Cincinnati, are former members of the Missouri Valley Conference, where they finished first or second in eight straight seasons. They've averaged 26 wins in 10 seasons under coach Gregg Marshall and appeared in a school-record six straight NCAA tournaments.

The timing was right for the Shockers to upgrade their league. They're a talented, veteran, balanced and disciplined team that executes offensively, averaging a league-best 85.8 points per game. They also controls the boards, ranking third in the nation in rebounding margin at 11.5.

They have star power, too, featuring elite guard Landry Shamet.

"We know he's going to come in here and try to make a statement," Vital said. "But it's up to us to not let that happen."

Odds of pulling off an upset will increase if they play with all-out energy and effort for all 40 minutes. They nearly accomplished that feat at Arizona before badly fading down the stretch.

Through 12 games, they've struggled in nearly every department, ranking last or next to last in the AAC in scoring defense (73.1), field goal percentage (40.1), field goal percentage defense (43.2), 3-point field goal percentage defense (36.4) and assists (9.3 per game).

The Shockers certainly won't wait for the typically slow-starting Huskies to strike before going on the attack.

"The bell is going to ring at 12," Ollie said. "We've just got to go out there and fight. I want to see that from the first tap to the last seconds of the game. ... You can't give in, you can't quit. That's the one thing that I don't want to see. That Auburn game, we kind of put our heads down a little bit.

"We have to compete on every possession."

• Ollie reacted to Thursday's news that guard Alterique Gilbert (left shoulder injury) will sit out the rest of the season. "I just wish him the best of luck. I want him to get back healthy. If he decides to have surgery, the sooner we can get it done, the better and quicker he can come back. ... He's really a key to what we do offensively and defensively and a big part of our leadership."

g.keefe@theday.com

UConn coach Kevin Ollie has watched his Huskies battle with inconsistency during a 7-5 start, but they get things turned in the right direction on Saturday with an upset win over No. 8 Wichita State in the American Athletic Conference opener at the XL Center in Hartford. (Julie Bennett/AL.com via AP)
UConn coach Kevin Ollie has watched his Huskies battle with inconsistency during a 7-5 start, but they get things turned in the right direction on Saturday with an upset win over No. 8 Wichita State in the American Athletic Conference opener at the XL Center in Hartford. (Julie Bennett/AL.com via AP)

UCONN vs. No. 8 WICHITA STATE

LOCATION: XL Center, Hartford

TIP: noon (CBS)

RECORDS: UConn 7-5, Wichita State 10-2

LAST GAME: UConn lost at Auburn, 89-64, Dec. 23; Wichita State beat Florida Gulf Coast, 75-65, Dec. 22

PROBABLE STARTERS: UConn, 6-3 jr. guard Jalen Adams (18.2 pts, 4.3 rebs, 3.5 assists), 6-2 grad. guard Antwoine Anderson (8.4 pts), 6-8 r-junior forward Terry Larrier (15.5 pts, 5.3 rebs), 6-8 fr. forward Isaiah Whaley (2.2 pts), 6-9 jr. forward Eric Cobb (2.5 pts, 4 rebs)

Wichita State, 6-4 r-so. guard Landry Shamet (17.1 pts), 6-1 r-sr. guard Conner Frankamp (11.5 pts), 6-6 sr. forward Zach Brown (4.5 pts, 4.5 rebs), 6-7 sr. forward Rashard Kelly (5.5 pts, 7.9 rebs), 6-9 sr. forward Darral Willis Jr. (12.8 pts, 7.5 rebs)

NOTEWORTHY: AAC opener for both teams. Inaugural American game for newcomer WSU. ... Series: UConn won only other meeting, 83-79, in 2010 Maui Invitational opener ... Huskies undefeated at home (6-0). Shockers own most road wins (43-6) since start of 2013-14 season. ... Huskies 1-3 overall in AAC openers in league's brief history. ... WSU's only losses to Oklahoma, Notre Dame. ... Top reserve: 6-8 r-sr. center Shaquille Morris (12.1 pts, 4.8 rebs). ... UConn 0-2 vs. ranked teams this season. ... Shamet an AAC preseason first team pick. ... Hot: WSU leads league in scoring (85.8 pts), field goal percentage (48.8), free throw percentage (76.0), rebounding margin (11.5). Cold: UConn last in AAC in scoring defense (73.1), field goal percentage (40.1), assists (9.3 per game, 349th in nation). ... Shockers second in AAC preseason poll, Huskies fifth. ... Up next: UConn visits Tulsa Wednesday.

— Gavin Keefe

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