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Huskies begin Big East play with Blaney leading way

For the next three games, the UConn sideline will be a quieter place without coach Jim Calhoun.

The coaching message will be delivered in a soft, gentler tone. Toe-tapping will take the place of foot-stomping.

Expectations will remain the same, though, with associate head coach George Blaney in charge during Calhoun's three-game suspension.

"There's going to be coach's voice in another body," sophomore Jeremy Lamb said. "We've just got to really focus and try to get these wins."

No. 9 UConn (10-1) opens the Big East season tonight against South Florida (7-6) at St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa (9 p.m., SNY).

Blaney has played the role of substitute head coach 15 times before, the last time in an overtime loss to Marquette last Feb. 24. The Huskies are 9-9 overall when Calhoun has missed a complete game, including 7-8 with Blaney as bench coach.

"You just try to maintain what we do and what we do well and really talk to the team about giving the kind of effort that he would demand of them," Blaney said. "The more competitive we can be the more successful that we'll be.

"It's never easy to try to simulate what Jim would do. I can't do some of the things he does. He probably doesn't do some of the things I do. I keep it in line with what he does in practice."

During Calhoun's absence, the Huskies are playing three teams projected to finish near the bottom of the standings in the conference in South Florida (14th), St. John's (12th) and Seton Hall (13th).

Tonight, the Huskies are playing their first true road game this season, so being without Calhoun isn't the only obstacle.

"I think they'll react fine," said Blaney of the players. "The problem as I see it is I think South Florida is really good. They really have excellent players. Whether or not on the road, we need to be ready."

There's fairly recent evidence backing up Blaney's point. In their last visit in March of 2010, the Huskies lost 75-68. And they needed to go overtime last season to win (66-61) in Hartford.

"We've always played UConn very tough throughout the years and they're definitely one of the top programs in the country," USF coach Stan Heath said on the school's website. "We're going to need to play very well and hopefully playing at home will be an extra boost for us."

The Huskies have won six in a row, but they're far from a finished product. No more was that evident than in Thursday's 79-71 win over Fairfield during which UConn watched a 22-point lead shrink to three in the second half.

UConn's ultimate goal is to play full possessions as it did during last year's postseason run to the national title.

"I still think this team, because of all the success last year, has great expectations," Blaney said. "They think they should be really good. For a good portion of the time, we're really melding.

" We're doing good things, just not in full possession mode as we were against Kentucky and Butler (in the Final Four) and in the Big East tournament. We played full possessions in those games and that's a goal. It's a difficult goal to reach."

It's a goal made even more difficult without Calhoun around. Calhoun is prohibited from any coaching duties until after the Seton Hall game on Jan. 3. He spoke with the Huskies before practice on Christmas night.

"I don't know how he's going to handle it," junior Alex Oriakhi said. "I know he's going to be watching it and jumping around and yelling at the TV. Hopefully, we can just go out there compete and play hard and most importantly get the win."

g.keefe@theday.com

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