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    Tuesday, March 05, 2024

    UConn men’s basketball closing in on record setting streak

    UConn head coach Dan Hurley celebrates with his players and staff after an NCAA college basketball game, the final of the Empire Classic tournament in New York, Monday, Nov. 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Peter K. Afriyie)
    Connecticut's Hassan Diarra (10) drives past Texas' Max Abmas (3) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the final of the Empire Classic tournament Monday, Nov. 20, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
    UConn's Alex Karaban gestures to teammates after making a 3-point basket during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Texas in the final of the Empire Classic tournament Monday, Nov. 20, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

    When informed Monday night that his UConn basketball team is closing in on making college basketball history, coach Dan Hurley kidded that he might alter Thanksgiving plans.

    The Huskies can tie the record for most consecutive non-conference wins by double digits with a convincing win over Manhattan on Friday in Hartford and break it Monday against New Hampshire in Storrs.

    “We’re playing the day after Thanksgiving, so we’re canceling Thanksgiving,” Hurley quipped after capturing the Empire Classic championship at Madison Square Garden in New York. “We’re not going to let these guys eat turkey and be all sluggish the next day.”

    Being sluggish is definitely something that the Huskies know nothing about.

    Since the beginning of last season, they’ve won 22 straight non-conference games by double figures. Only the 2008-09 North Carolina program owns a longer streak, going 23 games.

    You have to go back to the first round of the 2022 NCAA tournament – a 70-63 loss to New Mexico State on March 17 – to find the last time the Huskies stumbled against a non-conference opponent.

    “It’s been unbelievable,” Hurley said. “From the last non-conference season, these guys have just been awesome. We are unique with the way we play.”

    Indiana and No. 15 Texas are the latest teams to join the list of victims, both falling to the fifth-ranked Huskies in the Empire Classic. At least the Hoosiers can say that they did something no other UConn opponent has this season – take a lead, which was short lived at 3-1 and 4-3.

    After winning all 17 non-conference games last season, including six by an average of 20 points in the NCAA tournament on the way to capturing the program’s fifth national title, UConn (5-0) continues to roll this season despite losing three starters in Jordan Hawkins, Adama Sanogo and Andre Jackson as well as a couple key reserves.

    Texas coach Rodney Terry came away impressed with the fifth-ranked Huskies after suffering an 81-71 loss in the Empire Classic championship game on Monday.

    “Well-coached UConn team,” Terry said. “A lot of respect for Danny for what he’s been able to do at UConn. … He’s really reloaded in terms of having an elite team. They’re an elite top five caliber team right now. Having had a chance to win a national championship, that just adds to the culture that he’s built and the confidence that his team plays with.”

    And the Huskies aren’t even at full strength yet.

    They’ve won the last three games without Big East preseason freshman of the year Stephon Castle, who’s out with a knee injury until at least sometime next week. Sophomore Donovan Clingan is still working on his conditioning while rebounding from a foot injury that sidelined him for nearly a month during preseason.

    Yet they’ve outscored opponents by a whopping 29.4 points per game this season.

    Their demolition crew is punching in and punching out opponents early on. They’ve yet to trail at halftime this season, something that happened only once last season in non-conference play.

    UConn rebounded from a 39-37 deficit against Iona in the NCAA first round action and won 87-63. The Huskies finished 17-0 overall versus non-conference competition.

    “We’re ready to go, man,” Hurley said. “When these games start, we’re confident and very well prepared.”

    During the streak, they’ve beaten six ranked teams – No. 15 Texas on Monday and No. 18 San Diego State, No. 16 Miami, No. 9 Gonzaga, No. 19 Saint Mary’s and No. 18 Alabama last season.

    The Huskies will be heavily favored to beat Manhattan (3-1) and New Hampshire (2-2) in the next two games and set the record.

    When told about the opportunity to make history, senior Hassan Diarra said: “We’ve got two more. Thanks for letting me know. I’m going to be locked in on that.”

    After hosting New Hampshire, UConn will face its toughest regular season challenge in recent years on Dec. 1 with a road game at No. 1 Kansas.

    Hurley believes the best is still yet to come for the Huskies.

    “We’ve got great potential to be much better than we are right now,” Hurley said. “We’ve got a lot of new pieces. Steph is a huge piece and he’s not in the mix. He brings a dimension that we don’t have right now – that 6-6 super athletic guard that can get anywhere he wants on the court and is a problem defensively.

    “Even players like Alex (Karaban) and Donovan. Jordan Hawkins at the beginning of his sophomore year was a much different player than he was at the end of his sophomore year. So this team will continue to get better. The freshmen will get better, the sophomores. The veteran backcourt will get more comfortable.”

    g.keefe@theday.com

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