UConn men ready to face Arkansas in Sweet 16
Before leaving for the next stop on its March Madness joy ride, UConn had a special visitor stop by practice.
Legendary Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun spoke to the Huskies earlier this week at the Werth Family practice facility in Storrs.
Calhoun is an authority on successful postseason runs, having led the Huskies to three national championship titles and won 49 tournament games overall.
UConn posted a video of Calhoun’s inspirational message on social media.
“You’ve only just begun,” Calhoun said. “Right now, you’re 80 minutes from Houston. … You’re going on a weekend trip, 80 minutes. If I were you, I could smell it. Guaranteed, in my 50 years of basketball, some guys and teams I’ve had, you’re more than good enough to do it.
“You got something special going on, I can feel it.”
It’s a land-mine filled road to Houston, the site of the Final Four.
First, to extend its postseason run, fourth-seeded UConn (27-8) has to survive 40 minutes of high intensity basketball against No. 8 Arkansas (22-13) Thursday in the NCAA West Region Sweet Sixteen action at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. Game time is 7:15 p.m. (Ch. 3).
No. 3 Gonzaga (30-5) and No. 2 UCLA (31-5) meet in the second game of the West Region doubleheader.
“Should be an unbelievable challenge versus an Arkansas team that was playing like the top 10 team they were projected to be in the preseason,” coach Dan Hurley said during Wednesday’s press conference at T-Mobile Arena.
Hurley, who’s in his fifth season, has the kind of lethal UConn team that is capable of challenging for the program’s fifth national championship.
So, it seemed fitting to bring in Calhoun to address his team.
“I’ve always been smart enough to try to get as close to Coach Calhoun and (women’s coach) Geno (Auriemma) as I could possibly get,” Hurley said. “And I just thought going into the tournament, I knew I wanted to be around Coach. Maybe get some of that magic on me a little bit.”
Redshirt freshman Alex Karaban appreciated Calhoun’s words of wisdom as well as Hurley’s ongoing message to the team.
“It was special to hear from him,” Karaban said. “He’s won three national championships. He’s a UConn legend. And he was the one that helped build this place up. So to get his experience, to get his insight on our team and to tell us how good of a team we can be is something special as we took it to heart.”
“And coach Hurley’s message, the same as last week… to just enjoy everything.”
The Huskies are enjoying themselves so far, rolling to two double digits wins in its first two tournament games
Arkansas also has been impressive, knocking off No. 9 Illinois and stunning top-seeded Kansas.
The Razorbacks, a member of the Southeastern Conference, also are battle-tested from previous tournament experience. They’re one of four schools to make the Sweet Sixteen in the last three seasons.
The Huskies have reached this stage for the first time since 2014, the year of the program’s last national championship.
Second-half surges propelled them in their first and second round wins. They out-scored both opponents by a combined 40 points and limited them to 28 percent (13 for 46) from the field after intermission.
After shaking the big stage jitters, they’ve been more relaxed in the final 20 minutes.
“It’s getting through the first part where it’s a little bit anxious, you know what I mean?” junior Andre Jackson Jr. said. “Once we get past that, we all get lost into the game, that’s where we’re all able to break out and it’s really special what we can do.
“I think tomorrow’s definitely going to be a different type of game, a team that we like to play against, a more fast paced and athletic game. So it’s definitely a game I feel like we can definitely break out early and have some more success in the first half as well.”
Arkansas is an entirely different beast than UConn’s previous two foes.
The Razorbacks are long, quick and athletic. Their disruptive defense forced 29 turnovers in their first two games. They’re 10th in the nation in blocks per game at 5.1.
While their rotation is only seven deep, it’s full of quality. Ricky Council IV powers a four-guard attack, averaging 19.5 points and eight rebounds in tournament play. Davonte Davis had a huge second half against Kansas, scoring 21 of his 25 points to rally his team from a 12-point deficit.
The outcome may come down to the rebounding battle. Both teams ferociously attack the boards and beat their opponents in that area in the previous two games.
“You’ve got to be physical,” Arkansas coach Eric Musselman said of UConn. “They’re a physical team. They send four to the glass almost every time. … So we’ve got to do a good job of defensive rebounding, and then we’ll see how that affects our transition offense as well. But obviously they’re the best rebounding team we played all year and we played against some really good rebounding teams.
“But everyone says UConn is the best rebounding team in the country. And they have two centers, that, in my opinion, is the best center combination basically in all of basketball.”
Hurley feels pretty darn good about his team’s chances. And he should.
At this point, it’s all about UConn continuing to play to its identity, according to Hurley.
“You deal with nothing but quality here, especially in this little four-team bracket,” Hurley said. “I think anyone in this bracket is capable of getting to the national championship game and winning it. So we know how loaded this four-team field is.
“We’ve just got to play to our identity.”
No. 4 UCONN vs. No. 8 ARKANSAS
Location: T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas
Tip: 7:15 p.m. (CBS
Records: UConn 27-8, Arkansas 22-13
Last game: UConn beat No. 5 Saint Mary’s, 70-55, Sunday; Arkansas defeated No. 1 Kansas, 72-71, Saturday
Probable starters: UConn, 6-5 sr. guard Tristen Newton (10.1 pts, 4.2 rebounds 4.6 assists), 6-6 jr. guard Andre Jackson (6.8 pts, 6.3 rebs, 4.4 assists), 6-5 so. guard Jordan Hawkins (15.9 pts, 3.8 rebs), 6-8 r-fr. forward Alex Karaban (9.4 pts, 4.3 rebs), 6-9 jr. forward Adama Sanogo (17.3 pts, 7.5 rebs)
Arkansas, 6-4 jr. guard Davontae Davis (11.1 pts, 4.4 rebs), 6-6 jr. guard Ricky Council IV (16.1 pts, 3.6 rebs), 6-5 fr. guard Nick Smith Jr. (12.6 pts, 1.6 rebs), 6-7 fr. guard Anthony Black (12.6 pts, 5.1 rebs, 4 assists), 6-7 sr. forward Kamani Johnson (2.3 pts, 3.1 rebs)
Noteworthy: This is UConn’s 18th Sweet 16 appearance, winning its last five and going 11-6 overall. Third straight for Arkansas. … UConn coach Dan Hurley and Arkansas’ Eric Musselman coached against each other in 2017. Musselman’s Nevada beat Hurley’s Rhode Island team, 88.81. … Series: UConn leads 3-1, losing last meeting, 102-67, in the 2017 Phil Knight Invitational. … Razorbacks have defeated a No. 1 seed in two straight years, beating Gonzaga in 2022 and Kansas last week. … Council, a Wichita State transfer, was the 2022 AAC Sixth Man of the Year. … 36th NCAA tourney trip overall for Arkansas, which owns a 50-34 record overall. Looking to advance to the Elite Eight for the third straight year for the first time in school history. … Top reserves: 6-7 fr. forward Jordan Walsh (7.2 pts, 4 rebs), Rhode Island transfer Makhel Mitchell (7.1 pts, 5.5 rebs). … Common foes: Creighton (UConn 1-1, Arkansas (0-1), Florida (UConn 1-0, Arkansas 1-0), Alabama (UConn 1-0, Arkansas (0-2). … Razorbacks finished at 8-10 in the Southeastern Conference. … Stat to watch: Turnovers. Arkansas forces 14.3 per game. … Huskies 41-11 in last 16 NCAA appearances. … Hot: Sanogo averaging 26 points and 10.5 rebounds while converting 24 for 33 from the field in tournament action. Cold: Hawkins 7 for 17 from the field in last two games. … UConn’s bench contributed 38 points thus far in the tourney. … Up next: Winner advances to Saturday’s Elite Eight, facing either Gonzaga or UCLA.
– Gavin Keefe