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    Friday, April 19, 2024

    Plenty at stake when No. 1 UConn hosts No. 4 Marquette on Saturday in marquee matchup

    UConn center Donovan Clingan, top, guards DePaul center Churchill Abass during the second half of a men’s college basketball game in Chicago. UConn won 101-65 and will next face defending Big East tournament champion Marquette in Hartford on Saturday.(Nam Y. Huh/AP Photo)
    UConn guard Stephon Castle, left, goes up for a dunk against DePaul guard K.T. Raimey during the first half of Wednesday’s game in Chicago. (Nam Y. Huh/AP Photo)

    Time to raise a glass to the Big East men’s basketball schedule-makers.

    The league really nailed it by setting up two meetings between UConn and Marquette down the home stretch of the regular season.

    On Saturday, the much-anticipated first matchup will feature the No. 1-ranked and Big East leading Huskies versus the No. 4 Golden Eagles, the defending league regular-season champions, at 3 p.m. at the XL Center in Hartford.

    The outcome of the two games — the second taking place March 6 in Milwaukee — will not only impact the regular-season title chase but also could affect seeding for the upcoming Big East and NCAA tournaments.

    Oh, and did you know UConn (23-2, 13-1) is riding a 13-game winning streak and Marquette (19-5, 10-3) is unbeaten in eight straight?

    The mammoth marquee matchup will have the attention of the college basketball world and will be must-see television on Fox.

    Earlier this week, both teams took care of business against lesser opponents while on midwest road trips.

    UConn disposed of DePaul 101-65 Wednesday in Chicago and Marquette won at Butler 78-72 Tuesday in Indianapolis. The Golden Eagles strengthened their hold on second place and stayed within striking distance of the Huskies.

    After his team’s victory, Marquette coach Shaka Smart turned his attention to UConn.

    “They have a phenomenal team,” Smart told reporters. “Our guys that have been around have a familiarity with them. Their guys that have been around have a familiarity with us. I think it’s great for the Big East that there will be a ton of attention put on that game.

    “The last two years we’ve gone up there, we’ve allowed the game to get away from us a little bit, which is understandable for a lot of teams going up there. But, if you want to win, you’ve got to stay attached. It’s going to be a fun challenge.”

    Marquette has lost its last three road games in the series, including falling 87-72 last February in Hartford.

    But the Golden Eagles avenged that loss in March by beating the Huskies in the 2023 Big East tournament semifinals, 70-68 at Madison Square Garden. The following day, Marquette beat Xavier to capture the title.

    UConn bounced back quite nicely, winning the program’s fifth national title in April.

    Since that Marquette loss, the Huskies have won 29 of their last 31 games.

    The Golden Eagles have been pretty darn good as well.

    After being picked first in the Big East preseason coaches’ poll, Marquette has had a target on its back. The Huskies were third.

    UConn is zeroing in on dethroning the Big East champs and trying to win its first regular-season title in 18 years.

    To do so, the Huskies will have to finish strong while facing their most challenging stretch of their schedule. They’ll play their three toughest road games, traveling to Creighton (Tuesday), Marquette and Providence (March 9), teams that are a combined 35-5 at home this season.

    First, there’s Saturday’s mega-matchup.

    Beat Marquette in Hartford and UConn will be one significant step closer to winning the regular-season title.

    “It’s championship time of year,” coach Dan Hurley told reporters after beating DePaul Wednesday. “You’ve got to be playing your best. You’ve got to be playing championship level basketball. You can’t have many holes in the way you’re playing or else you get eliminated and sent home.”

    “In the back of your mind, we know we have a great schedule of great challenges that we know are going to get us ready for tournament play coming up at the end of the year here. I don’t know that anyone (on Wednesday) was thinking ahead to the weekend. We knew the best way we could prepare for any future games was to have great preparation for this one (against DePaul), play well, be confident going into the weekend and next week.”

    It’s been 15 years since two top five-ranked Big East teams have battled in Connecticut..

    On Feb. 16, 2009, No. 1 UConn lost to No. 4 Pittsburgh 76-68 in Hartford.

    Husky fans hope for a better outcome on Saturday.

    In other news, UConn point guard Tristen Newton was named to the Naismith Trophy Men’s Player of the Year Midseason Watch List on Thursday.

    g.keefe@theday.com

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