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    Tuesday, March 05, 2024

    UConn men battling injuries heading into showdown with No. 9 North Carolina

    North Carolina guard RJ Davis (4) is tightly defended by Tennessee guard Zakai Zeigler, right, during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023, in Chapel Hill, N.C. (AP Photo/Chris Seward)
    Kansas guard Elmarko Jackson (13) passes around UConn guard Cam Spencer, left, during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Friday, Dec. 1, 2023, in Lawrence, Kan. Kansas won 69-65. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
    UConn head coach Dan Hurley questions a call during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Kansas Friday, Dec. 1, 2023, in Lawrence, Kan. Kansas won 69-65. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

    Talk about a terrible time for the UConn basketball team to be banged up.

    Trying to beat No. 9 North Carolina is challenging enough with a healthy roster.

    But the fifth-ranked Huskies will try to do it in the Jimmy V Classic at 9 p.m. Tuesday at Madison Square Garden in New York with some key players dealing with injuries.

    Cam Spencer has an issue with both of his big toes – one he hurt before Friday’s loss at then No. 5 Kansas and the other during that non-conference showdown. Fellow starters Donovan Clingan (toe) and Alex Karaban (finger) have been limited in practice.

    They’ll all be game day decisions, according to coach Dan Hurley who provided an update during a Zoom call on Monday and talked about facing North Carolina (7-1).

    “I know those guys – UConn/Carolina at the Garden, Jimmy V – it’s going to take a lot for them not to give it a go,” Hurley said. “But I want to see what they look like (Tuesday). It’s a long season. This isn’t the type of opponent that you want to play against if you can’t run at full speed, because they can run really fast.”

    UConn (7-1) is expected to welcome back freshman guard Stephon Castle, who’s returning to the rotation after missing the last six games with a knee injury. Castle, a McDonald’s All-American, started the first two games, averaging 14.5 points and 6.5 rebounds.

    But Castle’s playing time will be limited.

    “Steph looks good for it,” Hurley said. “From a precautionary standpoint, we’ve just got to make sure that he’s feeling good after back to back days of getting live reps. He’ll have a minutes restriction having missed so much time.”

    It’s far from an ideal situation for the Huskies.

    North Carolina is led by the talented and experienced duo of senior guard RJ Davis and fifth-year center Armando Bacot. Davis is on a roll, averaging 26.8 points in the last four games, while the 6-foot-11 Bacot is the program’s record holder for the most career double-doubles.

    The Tar Heels, who’ve won three straight and suffered their only loss to Villanova (83-81 in overtime on Nov. 23), run an explosive offense, scoring 86.3 points per game.

    “They’re playing really well,” Hurley said. “(Elliot) Cadeau has just brought a different element to them now that he’s had a handful of games to get comfortable. You can see the impact that he’s having on their offense. Their pace is impressive.

    “RJ Davis is one of the best guards in the country and Bacot is one of the best bigs in the country. They get shooting and scoring from (Cormac) Ryan. They get shooting, scoring and post-up from (Harrison) Ingram. It’s definitely one of the best offenses in the country. It’s going to be a heck of a challenge to guard them, especially with the way our defense has not been as good as it has been in the past.”

    UConn is coming off its first loss of the season. The Huskies put forth a valiant effort at Kansas on Friday, rallying to seize a five-point lead in the second half before fading down the stretch and losing 69-65. They came close to pulling out a win despite shooting poorly from the foul line (8 for 15) and finishing with a season-low 41.1 percent from the field.

    Tuesday’s game will be UConn’s second straight against a top 10 non-conference opponent.

    That hasn’t happened during the regular season in 13 years.

    In the 2010 Maui Invitational, UConn beat No. 2 Michigan State (70-67) and No. 8 Kentucky (84-67) in late November. That season ended with the Huskies hoisting the national championship trophy.

    Far too early to tell if UConn is on the national title path this season.

    First, the Huskies need to get healthy.

    And it would also help if Karaban shook a shooting funk from the perimeter. He’s just 2 for 15 from 3-point range in the last three games and averaged just 9.3 points.

    “You’re going to have stretches like this,” Hurley said. “He went through it last year. Obviously, he found his footing. Alex is probably the last guy on the roster that I’m worried about right now.”

    The Huskies are trying to rack up as many wins against ranked teams as it can to improve their resume and prepare for Big East play. They’re already defeated No. 15 Texas and will face No. 7 Gonzaga on Dec. 15 in Seattle.

    “These are great games,” Hurley said. “We’re getting a chance to play truly the best teams in the country in our big non-conference games. … When you look at non-conference neutral (sites) and road, Indiana, Texas, Kansas, Carolina, Gonzaga, that’s going to prepare you for Big East Conference play. Those are as tough as tests that you can face.

    “Obviously, we wish we were playing these games healthier because they will potentially impact NCAA (tournament) seeding. … These games are hard enough to win at full strength.”

    g.keefe@theday.com

    No. 5 UCONN vs. No. 9 NORTH CAROLINA

    Location: Madison Square Garden, New York

    Tip time: approximately 9 p.m. (ESPN)

    Records: UConn 7-1, North Carolina 7-1

    Last game: UConn lost at Kansas, 69-65, Friday; North Carolina beat Florida State, 78-70, Saturday

    Series: UConn trails, 5-1, losing last meeting 77-70 on Feb. 13, 2005

    Probable starters: UConn, 6-5 graduate guard Tristen Newton (17.5 pts, 7.9 rebs, 6.3 assists), 6-6 graduate guard Cam Spencer (15 pts, 3.4 rebs), 6-3 fr. guard Solo Ball (5.6 pts, 2.6 rebs), 6-8 r-so. forward Alex Karaban (14 pts, 5.8 rebs), 7-2 so. center Donovan Clingan (14.1 pts, 6.1 rebs)

    North Carolina, 6-1 fr. guard Elliot Cadeau (7.1 pts, 4 assists), 6-0 sr. guard RJ Davis (20.4 pts, 3.1 rebs), 6-5 grad guard Cormac Ryan (11 pts, 3.3 rebs), 6-7 jr. forward Harrison Ingram (14.5 pts, 6.8 rebs), 6-11 grad center Armando Bacot (16.3 pts, 11.8 rebs, 2 blks)

    Noteworthy: Second straight top 10 matchup. …. UConn 0-4 in four previous Jimmy V Classic games. … Huskies looking to get back on track after 13-game winning streak snapped. … UConn 1-1 vs. ranked opponents, beating No. 15 Texas and losing to No. 5 Kansas. … NC’s best wins came vs. Tennessee (100-92) and Arkansas (87-72). … Top reserve: 6-3 so. guard Seth Trimble (5.6 pts, 1.5 rebs). … Bacot has a NC record 72 career double doubles. …NC ranked 20th in the nation in scoring offense (86.2), UConn 21st (85.8). … Hot: Davis has scored at least 20 points in four straight games, averaging 26.8 during that span. Cold: Karaban made just 2 of 15 3-pointers in last three games. … Huskies shot a season-low 41.1 percent vs. Kansas but made a season-high tying 11 threes. … Newton made the weekly Big East honor roll. ... Ball has only three turnovers in eight games, the fewest among starters. … UConn is 2-0 this season at MSG, beating Indiana and Texas in the Empire Classic on Nov. 19-20, and 70-60 all-time. … Up next: UConn hosts Arkansas Pine Bluff at noon Saturday in Storrs.

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