UConn has the full attention of Houston's Sampson

Hartford — To American Athletic Conference basketball teams on UConn's side of the tournament bracket, the Huskies are considered a significant roadblock.

Forget about their losing record.

Forget about their injuries.

They're not to be overlooked, especially playing on their home court in the XL Center in Hartford.

When given an opportunity to talk about his team's potential path to Sunday's AAC tournament championship game, Houston coach Kelvin Sampson declined to look too far down the road with a potential quarterfinal round matchup with UConn looming.

The third-seeded Cougars received a first round bye.

"When a potential opponent is Connecticut, it's hard for me to think anything past that," Sampson said earlier this week during the AAC conference call.

No. 6 UConn beat No. 11 South Florida, 77-66, in Thursday's first round to advance to face Houston (21-9). Game time is approximately 9:30 p.m. on Friday.

"That certainly makes your road a little bit tougher, anytime you play the host school in a gym that they play a lot of their games in, which means they're going to have their fan base there cheering for them," Sampson said.

Houston has a legitimate shot at challenging No. 1 SMU and No. 2 Cincinnati for its first AAC title. The Cougars are the only team to place two players on the All-AAC first team in the lethal backcourt duo of Rob Gray and Damyean Dotson. Sampson calls junior forward Devin Davis, who is finally healthy, the X factor.

Houston swept the regular-season series from UConn (15-16), winning 62-46 on Dec. 28 in Hartford and 75-70 on Feb. 22 in Houston. The Huskies played without point guard Jalen Adams (concussion) in the first meeting.

"I think you take the first one and you throw that out because they played without Jalen Adams," Sampson said. "The timing of that was good for us. I think they may have had one practice and then they played without him. ... Then the other one here, they outplayed us in the first half. Second half, we really played well."

Sampson expects to face a dangerous UConn team. He added the Huskies have good players at every position and more depth than SMU, the AAC regular season champion.

"The problem with Connecticut this year, and we all have to go through it, it's not the guys that they don't have, it's the guys that they have that have been injured," Sampson said. "Connecticut hasn't had a lot of luck when it comes to injuries. Hopefully, for (coach) Kevin (Ollie), he can get them all healthy with at least three or four days to rest. I think we're going to see the real Connecticut team."

Houston has never advanced past the AAC tournament semifinals in the first three years of the conference's existence. UConn has played in all three finals, winning its first title last season in Orlando, Fla.

The Cougars still have work to do to be in position for an NCAA tournament bid. The Huskies have only one route back to the postseason.

"We don't have a Plan B, it's all in Plan A," Ollie said, "because we've got one shot to get into the NCAA tournament and that's winning the conference tournament."

Award winners

• Earlier in the day, the AAC handed out its major individual awards. SMU star Semi Ojeleye became the first player in the conference to capture both player of the year and scholar-athlete honor.

It's well-deserved.

Ojeleye is the best player on the best team, helping the Mustangs (27-4, 17-1) win the regular season title for the second time in three years. He is averaging 18.5 points per game and 6.5 rebounds. In the classroom, he has a 3.656 grade point average as a psychology major.

In his first full season at SMU, Tim Jankovich earned AAC coach of the year honors. The rookie of the year award went to K.J. Lawson of Memphis. Lawson, whose brother Dedric won it last season, is averaging 12.4 points and 8.3 rebounds.

Only Lawson attended the awards presentation at the XL Center.

News and notes

• With Thursday's win, UConn improved to 9-2 record in AAC tournament play, including 4-0 in first round games. South Florida fell to 1-4 in tourney play. ... Redshirt senior Rodney Purvis entered tournament action as the school record holder for most points (104), highest scoring average (14.9 pts) and most converted 3-pointers (18) in AAC tournament history. ... In other AAC tournament action, No. 9 East Carolina beat No. 8 Temple, 80-69, behind Kentrell Barkley who had a game-high 26 points and set a conference tournament record with 16 rebounds. "Obviously, it's a big win, not only for the team but for our program," ECU coach Michael Perry said. Up next: No. 1 SMU in Friday's quarterfinals. .... No.  7 Tulsa defeated No. 10 Tulane and meets Cincinnati on Friday.

g.keefe@theday.com

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