UConn's Vital excited about homecoming game against Syracuse at MSG
Emotional energy has partially fueled Christian Vital's basketball journey from Queens Village (N.Y.) to Storrs.
Vital has a deep passion for the game that shows — mostly in a positive but also sometimes in a negative way — whenever he's on the court.
UConn coach Kevin Ollie is trying to teach Vital, a freshman guard, the proper way to channel his emotions in a positive direction.
"He's got to make sure he has control of his emotions a little bit," Ollie said. "Other than that, I love his competitiveness. That's what makes him a good player because he has that emotion. ... He's not lacking in confidence. I don't have to wind him up to play. He's already ready to play."
Controlling his emotions will be a challenge for Vital on Monday when UConn faces Syracuse in the Tire Pros Classic at Madison Square Garden (7 p.m., ESPN2).
While he's attended sporting events at MSG on a number of occasions, Monday will mark the first time that Vital will play on the famous New York City court. He'll have his own personal fan club of family and friends in attendance, some making the 15-mile trip from Queens Village.
"Being from New York, everybody knows Madison Square Garden, the most famous arena in the world," Vital said. "I've been to multiple games there as a young child. I was able to see the locker room, be on the court and stuff like that.
"To actually play in a real Division I game is going to be a surreal moment. But I'm trying not to think about it too much, trying to think more about beating Syracuse and getting on a two-game winning streak. ... I just know I have to stay solid. Just because I'm going home, I don't need to try to go for 30 points."
Vital is looking forward to participating in a rivalry that grew to a fever pitch during the old Big East days. He remembers watching the epic six overtime battle in the quarterfinals of the 2009 Big East tournament on television. The Orange won, 127-117, in a game that ranks among the greatest in college basketball history.
Following another former New York City guard, Kemba Walker, sparked Vital's interest in UConn.
Now it's Vital's turn to leave his mark on the rivalry.
"To be part of that, it is special," said Vital, who had a career-best 13 points in his first start in Wednesday's win against Boston University, raising his scoring average to 8.2 points. "Me being from New York going back home, I'm glad I'm on the Connecticut side. Hopefully, we can win Monday."
The intensity of the rivalry has faded since the Huskies joined the American Athletic Conference and Orange moved to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Coming off a Final Four appearance, Syracuse (5-2) is working on blending together some veterans with talented newcomers while UConn (3-4) is adjusting from the loss of three players to season-ending injuries.
Ollie, a former UConn point guard, is far more interested in what a win would do for his Huskies than what happened in the past.
"We need a win," Ollie said. "I don't care about who we're suiting up against. Of course, when you go to Madison Square Garden with Syracuse and UConn there's a lot of memories. ... I played them in a lot of those games, so you have those memories come up.
"But I don't really care. It's a game for us. ... We want to go out there and play UConn type of basketball. That's what I'm focusing on. I imagine the fans are really excited for the game."
The difference between winning and losing might come down to whether UConn can solve Syracuse's paralyzing and athletic 2-3 zone. The Huskies have struggled against zones this season, lacking consistent perimeter weapons and effective inside players to pick it apart. They're converting just 32.4 percent from 3-point land.
The Huskies will have to raise their level of play against the Orange, who are holding foes to 35.4 percent from the field, to have a successful outcome.
"They make you execute," Ollie said. "You've got to hit some shots against them. You can't go cold for too long."
UConn knows all about lengthy droughts, managing just 51 points against Boston University, which mixed in a zone defense.
One possible plus on UConn's side: Syracuse just played on Saturday, beating North Florida.
"We know what they do," Boeheim said to reporters after the North Florida game. "I don't look at their record because I think they're still a very good team. ... They have eight very good players. They haven't played well but that doesn't mean they won't play well."
UCONN vs. SYRACUSE
Location: Madison Square Garden, NYC
Tip: 7 p.m. (ESPN2)
Records: UConn 3-4, Syracuse 5-2
Last game: UConn beat Boston University, 51-49, Wednesday; Syracuse defeated North Florida, 77-71, Saturday
Probable starters: UConn, 6-3 so. guard Jalen Adams (18 pts, 5 rebs, 5.4 assists), 6-4 r-sr. guard Rodney Purvis (13.5 pts, 4.2 rebs),6-2fr. guard Christian Vital (8.2 pts), 6-10 sr. forward Kentan Facey (3.3 pts, 4.4 rebs), 7-0 sr. center Amida Brimah (7 pts, 5.7 rebs, 3.3 blks)
Syracuse, 6-5 so. guard Frank Howard (9 pts, 6.7 assists), 6-6 fr. guard Tyus Battle (7.4 pts), 6-7 grad forward Andrew White II (17 pts, 4.1 rebs), 6-9 so. forward Lydon Tyler (10.3 pts, 7.1 rebs), 6-9 grad center DaJuan Coleman (7.4 pts, 5.3 rebs)
Noteworthy: Non-conference game between two ex-Big East rivals. ... Series: UConn trails, 55-37, losing last meeting 79-76 in 2015 Battle 4 Atlantis. Orange won seven of last nine. ... 115th game all-time at MSG for Huskies, 61-53 overall with 10 championships in that arena. 4-3 in building under Ollie. ... SU losses to Wisconsin, South Carolina. ... Orange ranked No. 22 prior to Monday's new AP poll. ... Top reserve: 6-8 sr. forward Tyler Roberson (7.3 pts, 5.4 rebs). ... Orange defense allowed 60.3 ppg and 35.4 percent from field. ... Guard John Gillon (Colorado State) and White (Nebraska), grad transfers, making an immediate impact. ... UConn was on Battle's list of finalists in recruiting search. ... Stat to watch: 3-point shooting. Orange average 9.4 per game. ... Huskies yet to win while trailing at half, going 0-4. ... Hot: Adams (19.7 pts), Purvis (14.0) averaged in double figures last 3 games. Cold: UConn out-rebounded in five of seven games. ... Up next: UConn visits Ohio State in Columbus for first time in 33 years on Saturday.