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    Friday, February 03, 2023

    No. 5 UConn heads to Florida in search of true road win

    Oklahoma State's Kalib Boone (22) and Connecticut's Andre Jackson Jr. (44) look for a rebound in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022, in Storrs, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
    Connecticut head coach Dan Hurley, right, talks to Andre Jackson Jr., left, and Hassan Diarra, center, during a timeout in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Oklahoma State, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022, in Storrs, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
    FILE - Florida forward Colin Castleton (12) plays against Vanderbilt during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, March 1, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn. Castleton, a first-team preseason All-SEC selection, is back after missing part of last season with a separated left shoulder. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski, File)

    UConn has built a resume worthy of its lofty No. 5 ranking.

    The undefeated Huskies have won their first nine games all by double figures for the first time in school history and outscored opponents by an average of 24.2 points per game, possessed a killer instinct and have yet to trail in the second half.

    They’ve posted four straight quality wins against Oregon, Alabama, Iowa State and Oklahoma State.

    About the only thing missing is a true road win.

    They’ll get a chance to add that accomplishment on Wednesday, visiting Florida (6-3) at the O’Connell Center in Gainesville for a 9 p.m., game.

    It will be the first time this season that the Huskies (9-0) will play in front of an unfriendly crowd.

    Coach Dan Hurley called it “a really important road game.”

    “Great teams, they win away from home, if you really want to build a resume and send a message about how good you are,” Hurley said. “We’re 3-0 on neutral (sites) and now we get a chance to go to a big high major place on the road in Florida and play in a hostile environment.

    “Obviously, we’re going to go in there highly ranked, so we’re going to get a real hostile environment and it’s a chance to pick up a big, big road win.”

    Almost everything about the experience on Wednesday will be new for this UConn team. No one on the roster has ever played with such a big target on their backs. In fact, the Huskies haven’t been ranked in the top five since November 2011.

    Teams like Florida will be fired up to try to add a win over a marquee program. The Gators have won three of their last four games despite dealing with some injuries and tightened up their defense.

    A former three-time All-Atlantic 10 performer at St. Bonaventure, guard Kyle Lofton, could return to the lineup after missing the last two games due to back spasms. His status will be a game-time decision. Three other transfers – Will Richard (Belmont), Alex Fudge (LSU) and Trey Bonham (VMI) also have made an impact.

    Florida’s best player is 6-foot-11, 250-pound forward Colin Castleton, who’s already scored 30 or more points twice this season. He’s averaging team-high in points (16.6), rebounds (7.4) and blocks (2.9).

    It will be a challenge for the Huskies to slow down the Gators, who average 81 points per game. They’ve faced potent offensive teams before and have yet to allow more than 67 points in a game.

    Everyone is buying into Hurley’s defensive game plan. Sophomore Jordan Hawkins, whose reputation is as a shooter not a defender, is taking charges.

    “All of our players have got to be two-way players,” Hurley said. “You can’t win anything significant unless you play elite level defense. That sends a message when your best shooter-scorer on the team is grinding defensively and working like that. It tells you about the culture and mindset of the program.

    “He’s not there auditioning for the NBA. He’s out there trying to win for UConn. That’s what our culture is all about.”

    The Huskies enter Wednesday’s game fresh off a much-needed six-day break between games. It will be their only true road game before opening the Big East season on Dec. 17 at Butler.

    They’ll be looking to start the season with 10 straight wins for the first time since 2010-11.

    While this is clearly Hurley’s best team during his five seasons in Storrs, he’s had a longer unbeaten streak while coaching at Rhode Island.

    There are similarities between the teams.

    “The longest run I’ve had in college, we had 18 in a row at Rhode Island,” Hurley said. “The thing about that team is they celebrated each other’s success. They knew that scoring a couple more baskets a game isn’t really going to impact career opportunities down the line. It’s about putting quality on the court, it’s about winning big. Winning big does more for your career than scoring empty points and hunting numbers on a losing team.

    “It’s all about keeping that mentality and culture that’s all about winning and celebrating when it’s other people’s night to have a good offensive game.”

    g.keefe@theday.com

    No. 5 UCONN at FLORIDA

    Location: O’Connell Center, Gainesville, Fla.

    Tip: 9 p.m. (ESPN2)

    Records: UConn 9-0, Florida 6-3

    Last game: UConn beat Oklahoma State, 74-64, Thursday; Florida defeated Stetson, 89-51, Sunday

    Probable starters: UConn, 6-5 sr. guard Tristen Newton (11.4 pts, 4.6 rebs, 4.2 assists), 6-6 jr. guard Andre Jackson (5 pts, 5.8 rebs, 4.3 assists), 6-5 so. guard Jordan Hawkins (13.3 pts), 6-8 r-fr. forward Alex Karaban (9.7 pts, 3.8 rebs), 6-9 jr. forward Adama Sanogo (18.7 pts, 6.9 rebs)

    Florida, 6-0 jr. guard Trey Bonham (10.2 pts), 6-5 fr. guard Riley Kugel (5.6 pts), 6-6 so. guard Kowacie Reeves (9.6 pts), 6-9 so. forward Alex Fudge (8 pts, 4.9 rebs), 6-11 fifth-year forward Colin Castleton (16.6 pts, 7.4 rebs, 2.9 blks)

    Noteworthy: As of Tuesday, UConn was one of 12 unbeaten teams left in the nation. … Series: UConn leads 4-1, winning four straight including last meeting 62-59 in November 2019. … Gators 0-1 vs. Big East foes this season, losing to Xavier 90-83 on Nov. 24 in Portland, Ore. … First-year coach Todd Golden spent the previous three years at San Francisco. … Florida 22-61 all-time vs. top five competition. … One of Florida’s losses came at home against Florida Atlantic and former Husky Jalen Gaffney. … Gators ranked 69th in first NCAA NET rankings, Huskies No. 2 … Top reserve: Will Richard (13.6 pts, 4.4 rebs). … Gators averaging 81 pts, Huskies 82.9 pts per game. … Hot: Joey Calcaterra shooting 58.6 percent (17 for 29) from three. Cold: Jackson and Hassan Diarra converting 21.4 percent (3 for 14) from three. … Transfers Nahiem Alleyne (Virginia Tech) and Diarra (Texas A&M) both previously played against Florida, with the former firing in a career-high 28 points in a 2021 NCAA tournament first round overtime loss and latter supplying 14 points in a 2022 SEC Tournament game win. … Newton leads the team in steals (14), assists (38), Karaban first in minutes played at 29.6 and Donovan Clingan tops in blocks with 18. … Next up: UConn hosts Long Island at 12:30 p.m. Saturday at Gampel Pavilion.

    Gavin Keefe

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