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    Sunday, April 14, 2024

    Calhoun on the No. 1 UConn men: “They’ve certainly got a chance to do something special.”

    Former UConn head coach Jim Calhoun during a special half-time ceremony honoring the 2004 men's championship basketball team during a game against Xavier on Jan. 28 at the XL Center in Hartford. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
    UConn guard Tristen Newton, center, gestures after making a basket as teammate Cam Spencer reacts behind him in the second half of a game against Marquette on Saturday at the XL Center in Hartford. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

    For now, the lively debate that’s raged on for weeks in the college basketball world is over.

    Or at least put aside until something happens to warrant the discussion again.

    At this point in the season, UConn is the best team in the country.

    Associated Press voters made the Huskies the unanimous No. 1 team on Monday for the first time in program history. They received all 62 first place votes while residing in the top spot for the sixth straight week.

    “From third in the preseason (Big East coaches’) poll to No. 1,” coach Dan Hurley said. “Any time you can do things that haven’t been done at a place like UConn, you’ve had a special run. But no one is thinking about that.”

    Recent evidence supports UConn’s lofty standing.

    UConn (24-2) dismantled No. 4 Marquette by 28 points in Hartford on Saturday to extend its nation’s best winning streak to 14 straight. On Sunday, No. 2 Purdue (23-3) suffered a stunning upset loss (73-69) at unranked Ohio State and slipped to No. 3 in the poll.

    The Huskies are the first team to earn unanimous selection status this season. After receiving 45 votes last week, they picked up the 16 that previously went to Purdue. They’ll put their standing on the line on Tuesday with a challenging Big East game at No. 15 Creighton (19-7, 10-5) at CHI Health Center in Omaha, Neb. Tip-off time is 8:30 p.m.

    UConn has Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun’s vote.

    Calhoun watched Saturday’s impressive blowout from his seat in the XL Center. He saw the game go from a fiercely competitive battle in the first 10 minutes to a runaway win in a flash.

    “Very clearly and very definitively – it doesn’t mean that we can’t get beat – there’s no question that we’re the best team in the country right now,” Calhoun said on Monday.

    As the former UConn coach, Calhoun is a bit biased. But, in this case, it’s hard to find fault with his statement.

    By routing Marquette, UConn became the first Big East team to win three straight league games by at least 25 points. Its 14-game league winning streak is tied for the longest ever in the Big East, with the 1995-96 UConn team and St. John’s in 1984-85. Eight of those wins were by double digits.

    So, what stands out to Calhoun about the Huskies?

    “They’ve got answers,” Calhoun.

    No matter what happens, the Huskies still find a way to keep winning.

    When impact center Donovan Clingan was sidelined with a foot injury earlier this Big East season, the Huskies adjusted and won all five games without their big man. When some starters struggle offensively, other Huskies step up to fill the void. When they need a lift off the bench, reserves like Hassan Diarra and Samson Johnson deliver.

    This team is similar to the 2003-04 national championship team, according to Calhoun.

    “I always say to win a basketball game, you need answers,” Calhoun said. “They’re the closest, in a different way, to the 2004 team. Remember, the 2004 team only had six first round draft choices and the (NBA) rookie of the year the next year in Emeka (Okafor). You had Ben, the third guy taken in the draft. You have Rashad Anderson, who probably after Ray (Allen) was the second best 3-point shooter that I’ve ever had. We had Marcus Williams and Charlie Villanueva.

    “It reminds me of that team, except they have an extra big guy or two. But that kind of thing, when Emeka gets in foul trouble, we’re still going to beat you. Shut off Ben, Rashad can make shots. We had Taliek (Brown), who couldn’t make a foul shot except during games when it counted.

    “It’s not the same kind of team, but it has some of the same things. They’ve got a lot of answers. And they play together very well. I think their defense is getting better. When you’re put No. 1 in the country, it’s nice. But I haven’t seen anybody as good as us.”

    UConn will be severely tested down the home stretch of the regular season. All five remaining games are against teams in the top half of the Big East standings, three of those are on the road, starting at Creighton.

    The Huskies have played well on the road, going 6-2. They’re a victory shy of tying the most road wins (seven) by the program since 2013-14.

    With a win at Creighton, UConn will be extremely difficult to catch in the race for the Big East regular season title, something that the program last won 18 years ago. The first-placed Huskies are 14-1 in league play, with Marquette in second at 10-4. Creighton and Seton Hall are tied for third at 10-5.

    They can break another drought tonight at Creighton, where they’ve lost in all three previous trips there. The Bluejays are led by veterans Trey Alexander (17.2 points, 6.1 rebounds, 4.7 assists), Baylor Scheierman (18.7 points, 8.7 rebounds) and Ryan Kalkbrenner (17.2 points, 7.4 rebounds), one of the most productive trios in the country.

    The Huskies won the first meeting this season, 62-48, on Jan. 17 in Storrs.

    “It’s an opportunity to show something special about us,” Hurley said. “But we also understand that we’ve got to be willing to go to hell and back to get this one tomorrow. It’s going to be an absolute killer of a game.”

    The Huskies know they’re not invincible, but they’ve certainly looked that way at times.

    Calhoun, who won 10 Big East regular season championships in his career, will be closely following UConn’s title pursuit.

    “It’s going to take a really good team to beat them,” Calhoun said. “Or, what happens in sports occasionally, someone has a great night and we don’t have such a good night. I don’t have any question that they’re the best team. … They’re well-coached and really like each other. They’ve certainly got a chance to do something special.”

    g.keefe@theday.com

    No. 1 UCONN at No. 15 CREIGHTON

    Location: CHI Health Center, Omaha, Neb.

    Tip time: 8:30 p.m. (FS1)

    Records: UConn 24-2, 14-1; Creighton 19-7, 10-5

    Last game: UConn beat Marquette, 81-53, Saturday; Creighton won at Butler, 79-57, Saturday

    Series: UConn trails, 6-2, winning last meeting 62-48 on Jan. 17 in Storrs.

    Probable starters: UConn, 6-5 graduate guard Tristen Newton (15 pts, 6.7 rebs, 5.7 assists), 6-4 graduate guard Cam Spencer (15.2 pts, 4.7 rebs), 6-6 fr. guard Stephon Castle (10.8 pts, 4.4 rebs), 6-8 r-so. forward Alex Karaban (14.6 pts, 5.5 rebs), 7-2 so. center Donovan Clingan (12.3 pts, 6.5 rebs, 2.2 blks)

    Creighton, 6-4 jr. guard Trey Alexander (17.2 pts, 6.1 rebs 4.7 assists), 6-1 sr. guard Steven Ashworth (10.6 pts, 3.1 rebs), 6-7 sr. guard Baylor Scheierman (18.7 pts, 8.7 rebs), 6-9 so. forward Mason Miller (6 pts, 3.8 rebs), 7-1 sr. center Ryan Kalkbrenner (17.2 pts, 7.4 rebs, 2.6 blks)

    Noteworthy: Creighton has won three straight. … In the first meeting, Newton (15 pts), Spencer (13) and Karaban (13) led the Huskies, who led by 11 at halftime. Creighton shot 34.6% from the field. … Scheierman leads the Big East this season with 12 double-doubles. He’s on the Naismith Trophy Midseason Team list. … Bluejays are 0-6 all-time vs. the No. 1 team. … Top reserve: 6-3 sr. guard Francisco Farabello (4 pts,2.5 rebs). … Bluejays 11-2 at home, Huskies 6-2 on the road. … Huskies haven’t won on the road against a ranked opponent since beating No. 19 Memphis 72-53 on March 13, 2014. … Castle earned his eighth Big East freshman of the week honor. Spencer made the weekly honor roll for the 2nd straight week. … Hot: Reserve Hassan Diarra is averaging 11 points, 5 assists and 4 rebounds in the last two games. Cold: UConn opponents averaging 60.9 points in the last 10 games. … Huskies are 5-1 vs. ranked teams this season. … UConn coming off its most lopsided win over a top five opponent in school history. … Prior to Monday’s action, Huskies No. 4 in NCAA NET Rankings, Bluejays No. 13. … Up next: UConn hosts Villanova at 8 p.m. Saturday in Storrs. ESPN College Gameday will be on campus.

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