UConn men confident entering AAC tourney opener

Memphis, Tenn. — Dan Hurley says he ramps up his intensity for the postseason.

That's hard to believe considering the fiery UConn coach's off-the-charts energy during the regular season.

"This is a different level now that you've got to take it to in terms of your urgency," Hurley said on Wednesday at the team hotel in Memphis. "You can't take a dribble or a possession off. This is win or it ends.

"As up and down or as tough as it has been at times this year to play through where we're at, you don't ever get to coach this group of players or play with these teammates again once you lose. So you better win or be willing to die trying."

It's up to the ninth-seeded Huskies (15-16) to follow their coach's cue, starting with Thursday's American Athletic Conference tournament first-round game against No. 8 South Florida (19-12) at the FedExForum (1 p.m., ESPNU). The winner faces top-seeded Houston in Friday's quarterfinals.

All-out effort and intensity can be difference-makers in single elimination play.

"In a tournament like this, it's not about who is the better team overall, it's just who is better that day," senior Jalen Adams said.

No Husky will have a greater impact on whether UConn makes a run than Adams, who has far more postseason experience than his teammates.

Adams played for the program's only AAC tournament title in 2016. He's been part of five victories. While this is junior Christian Vital's third postseason, sophomores Josh Carlton and Tyler Polley, two key contributors this season, only played a total of nine minutes in last year's first-round loss to SMU while reserve Eric Cobb saw two minutes of action. This will be redshirt freshman Sidney's Wilson postseason debut.

"They've got to follow (Jalen's) lead this week if it is going to go well," Hurley said. "He knows what he's got to do for us to advance in this tournament. He's got to carry a heavy load. ... He's in a really good mental place coming in. He's ready to make his last stand as a UConn player here. He's one of the most talented players in the league, if not the most talented player."

The Huskies will be without starting guard Alterique Gilbert. He didn't make the trip, still recovering from a concussion and eye injury suffered on March 7 against Temple.

Adversity is nothing new to these Huskies, who've seen Adams and Gilbert miss a combined 13 games this season due to injuries.

Adams gave the Huskies a huge lift in his return in the regular season finale, leading them past host East Carolina on Sunday. He's tried to set the tone in practice this week.

"My job is to just let guys know to have confidence in whatever we're doing and that we can go on a big run," Adams said. "I think they know if they slack off a couple plays, it could be the end of the season. I think everybody has that sense of urgency and is locked in."

The team's confidence is significantly higher than last season at this point. The Huskies were in a bad place entering the tournament with coach Kevin Ollie on the verge of getting fired.

They possess a swagger that was missing last year.

"We're thinking whoever we play, we've got a good chance of winning," Adams said.

South Florida is certainly beatable. The teams split their regular season meetings.

Rebounding is a concern for UConn as is perimeter defense. The Huskies badly lost the battle of the boards in the two regular season meetings by an average of 14 per game.

"It has to be a team effort, all five guys boxing out," Carlton said.

While USF has a shot of earning an NIT bid, the AAC tournament will likely be UConn's only postseason experience and they plan to make the best of it.

Hurley called it a coin flip game.

"Obviously, we've got a tough game versus South Florida, a tough physical team," Hurley said. "It will be a hard fought game. This time of year if you've not filled with energy and excitement, you shouldn't be playing."

g.keefe@theday.com

UCONN vs. SOUTH FLORIDA

AAC tournament first round

Location: FedExForum, Memphis, Tenn.

Tip: 1 p.m. (ESPNU)

Records: Ninth-seeded UConn 15-16, No. 8 South Florida 19-12

Probable starters: South Florida, 6-1 r-jr. guard Laquincy Rideau (12.9 pts, 5.5 assists, 2.9 steals), 6-3 so. guard David Collins (15.3 pts), 6-6 so. guard Justin Brown (8.5 pts), r-fr. forward Alexis Yetna (12.1 pts, 9.6 rebs), 7-0 fr. center Michael Durr (5.5 pts, 6.2 rebs, 1.3 blks)

UConn, 6-3 sr. guard Jalen Adams (16.9 pts, 3.3 assists), 6-3 grad guard Tarin Smith (8 pts), 6-2 jr. guard Christian Vital (14.1 pts, 5.7 rebs), 6-8 so. forward Tyler Polley (8.7 pts, 2.2 rebs), 6-10 so. forward Josh Carlton (9.1 pts, 6 rebs, 1.7 blks)

Noteworthy: UConn, USF both 2-6 in last eight games. ... Series: UConn leads, 21-3, splitting last two, winning 60-58 at home March 3 and losing 76-68 on road Jan. 2. ... Huskies won previous two meetings in AAC tourney, 69-53 in 2015 and 77-66 in 2017, both first round in Hartford. ... Injury update: UConn's Alterique Gilbert (out), Rideau (questionable). ... Top reserve: 6-7 r-sr. forward T.J. Lang (6.3 pts,  2.2 rebs). ... Rideau AAC defensive player of the year, owns AAC single season steals record with 80. ... Yetna, a Putnam Science Academy grad, unanimous AAC all-rookie team pick. ... USF attempted most FTs (860) in country, making the 7th most (551). ... UConn with an AAC best 10 wins in five-year league tourney history, four losses. USF 1-5. ... Huskies only first round loss came last season vs. SMU (80-73) in Kevin Ollie's final game. ... Hot: Carlton averaging 19 pts, 8.7 rebs last three games. Cold: UConn out-rebounded by 7.2 in last five games. ... Huskies 4-5 at FedExForum, 1-1 in league tourney action. ... Stat to watch: Rebounds. Huskies lost battle of the boards, 93-65, in two games vs. USF. ... Up next: UConn-USF winner plays top-seeded Houston at noon Friday.

— Gavin Keefe


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