Part of the madness again: UConn heads West as No. 3 seed
Storrs - From the day a disappointing season ended in the NIT second round last March, UConn embarked on a mission to return to the March Madness party after a year's absence.
The Huskies' official NCAA tournament invitation arrived Sunday when they received a No. 3 seed in the West Region, opening against No. 14 Bucknell (25-8) Thursday at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. Tipoff is 7:20 p.m.
"Obviously, it's great to be back in the tournament," coach Jim Calhoun said at Gampel Pavilion. "We certainly missed it last year when we didn't come into the (locker) room to find out we weren't going to be there. We were disappointed."
It is UConn's 17th trip to the NCAA tournament in Calhoun's 25 seasons.
Apparently the Huskies (26-9) impressed the NCAA selection committee with their record-setting run to the Big East tournament championship. They headed to New York as a potential five or six seed and left as a three after culminating a historic week by beating Louisville in their fifth game in five days for the title.
The Huskies are one of a record 11 Big East teams in the NCAA's 68-team field.
"Being a three seed, obviously I think what we did during the week certainly counted," Calhoun said. "There's no doubt in my mind. We had nine losses. We were a good team in the league. But to be a three and be one of the top nine or 10 teams in the country, our work this past week really paid off."
For all but three players, this is will be their first NCAA tournament. They had already eliminated some suspense before watching the Selection Show by earning an automatic bid.
Still, freshman Shabazz Napier admitted to being nervous while waiting for UConn's name to pop up in a bracket.
"It was mixed feelings," Napier said. "I didn't know how to react. I didn't know what to do. I was just waiting. I was nervous.
"… When they called, UConn, No. 3 seed, everything else went out the window. I was relieved. I was okay. But then they said, Bucknell, then you think back in your mind, well, you never know. Every team in the NCAA is a great team so you've just got to be ready for them."
Bucknell, the Patriot League champion, is riding a 10-game winning streak, beating Lafayette in the conference tournament championship, 72-57, Friday.
The Bisons know something about playing as a heavy underdog in the NCAA tournament. As a No. 14 seed, they shocked No. 3 Kansas in a 2005 NCAA first-round game.
It's a safe bet that Calhoun will remind his players of that upset, as well as others in postseason, about a zillion times before Thursday's tip.
Calhoun already is warning them about repeating a similar letdown as they had after returning from winning the Maui Invitational in November. In the first game back, UConn trailed New Hampshire by one at halftime before posting 62-55 win.
"I hope that we don't come into the game acting like we're superstars and all that," Napier said. "I just hope we get it going."
If the Huskies advance - their only loss in an opening round game under Calhoun came to San Diego in 2008 - they'd meet a familiar opponent in either Big East foe Cincinnati or Missouri, which lost to UConn in the 2009 Elite Eight in Glendale, Ariz.
The West has been lucky for the Huskies in past tournaments, advancing out of that region in all three trips to the Final Four. Wins two games this week and they'll move on Anaheim.
But that's looking a bit too far ahead right now.
The Huskies left Gampel Pavilion Sunday looking to get a good night's rest to recover from a grueling Big East tournament. Calhoun isn't concerned about fatigue once the tournament begins.
"We're going to go like we always would prepare for an NCAA tournament," he said. "Do they need a good rest tonight? Obviously, they do…. But we'll work hard tomorrow.
"They are kids. There's so much at stake and so much opportunity. We want to advance ourselves."
At Verizon Center, Washington
No. 3 UConn (26-9) vs. No. 14 Bucknell (25-8), 7:20 p.m.
No. 6 Cincinnati (25-8) vs. No. 11 Missouri (23-10), 30 minutes following
UConn-Bucknell winner vs. Cincinnati-Missouri winner, TBA
Conference: Patriot League (champion)
Record: 25-8 overall, 13-1 league
Coach: Dave Paulsen (3rd year)
NCAA history: 5th appearance (2-4 record), last trip in 2006
Top players: 6-foot-11 so. center Mike Muscala (14.9 pts, 7.4
rebs), 6-1 so. guard Bryson Johnson (11.7 pts)
Common opponents: Lost on the road to two Big East teams
—Villanova, 68-52, Nov. 12; Marquette, 72-61, Nov. 14
Series record: UConn leads 2-0 playing in 1952 and 1953
Fast facts: Bucknell won Patriot League tournament championship game, beating Lafayette, 72-57, March 11. … Won 19 of last 20 games, including 10 straight. … Muscala was Patriot League Player of the Year while senior Darryl Shazier (first team) and Bryan Cohen (top defender) also earned all-league honors. … Bisons average 6.9 3-pointers per game and shoot 40.2 percent from distance. Johnson hits 45.9 percent from beyond the arc, leading team with 96 3-pointers. … located in Lewisburg, Pa., about 180 miles from Washington, D.C.
— Gavin Keefe