UConn gearing up for crucial stretch drive
Pressure builds throughout the critical month of February in the college basketball world.
It's a time for any serious contender for a conference championship and postseason bid to make a strong move.
With 10 regular season games remaining, UConn is revving its engine for a charge down the stretch.
The Huskies are attempting to pull away from a tight pack in the American Athletic Conference. They're one of seven teams separated by just one loss. And they face every one of them in upcoming weeks.
A win Thursday night at Memphis (13-8, 4-4) will keep UConn (15-6, 5-3) in the top five. Game time is 9 p.m. at the FedExForum.
They'll face a desperate Tiger team that's dropped three of their last four games and trying to avoid missing out on the NCAA tournament for the second straight year.
The Tigers are dealing with some turmoil.
Coach Josh Pastner is feeling the heat from the Memphis fan base. He benched senior Trahson Burrell, his most productive reserve, for the second half of Saturday's loss to nationally-ranked SMU for internal disciplinary reasons. Burrell remains in a holding pattern, so his status is unknown for Thursday's game.
All of that negative energy surrounding Memphis could benefit UConn.
So far, the Huskies have flexed their road muscles this season, going 4-1 including a convincing 67-41 rout of Central Florida Sunday in Orlando.
They're finally healthy again, as junior Amida Brimah, an intimidating rim protector and energizing presence, returned to the rotation after sitting out 11 games with a broken middle finger on his right hand. His output — six points, two rebounds, two blocks, 18 minutes — didn't represent his true impact.
There were several other positive developments in that victory. Guard Jalen Adams is playing more like a veteran than his freshman status. Sophomore Daniel Hamilton showed flashes of regaining his shooting touch after a prolonged funk.
UConn's defense has evolved into the team's sturdy anchor. The Huskies rank second in the nation in field goal percentage defense at 36.7. It's the lowest mark since their foes converted just 35.2 percent during the 1958-59 season.
The next challenge is slowing down the Tigers, who prefer a full throttle game and attacking style. As of Monday, they had the seventh-fastest offense in the country, averaging 75.4 possessions per game.
The Huskies won the first meeting, 81-78, on Jan. 9 in Storrs mostly because they limited Memphis to just five fast break points and scored 23 points off of 13 turnovers. Sterling Gibbs also made some clutch late free throws and finished with a season-high 26 points.
Another major factor was Memphis leading scorer Shaq Goodwin battled foul trouble and eventually fouled out with just over a minute left. Goodwin almost single-handedly kept the Tigers in the game by dominating inside in the second half, scoring 19 of his 23 points.
This time, Goodwin will have to contend with Brimah, who watched the last meeting from the bench due to his injury.
Expect a tight game given the series recent history, as the last three games have been decided by a combined seven points.
And expect the pressure to win the next game to loosen a bit on the winner and tighten on the loser.
UCONN AT MEMPHIS
Location: FedEXForum, Memphis
Tip-off: 9 p.m. (ESPN2)
Records: UConn 15-6, 5-3; Memphis 13-8, 4-4
Last game: UConn won at Central Florida, 67-41, Sunday; Memphis lost at SMU, 80-68, Saturday
Probable starters: UConn, 6-2 grad. guard Sterling Gibbs (13.0 pts), 6-3 fr. guard Jalen Adams (6 pts), 6-7 so. forward Daniel Hamilton (11.6 pts, 8.5 rebs, 4.8 assists), 6-7 grad. forward Shonn Miller (13.3 pts, 5.8 rebs)and 6-10 sr. center Phil Nolan (1.8 pts, 1.8 rebs)
Memphis, 6-0 jr. guard Sam Craft (3.5 pts), 6-2 sr. guard Ricky Tarrant, Jr. (12.6 pts), 6-5 so. guard Markel Crawford (5.9 pts, 3.7 rebs), 6-9 freshman forward Dedric Lawson (14.4 pts, 9 rebs), 6-9 sr. forward Shaq Goodwin (15.1 pts, 8.1 rebs)
Noteworthy: Second straight away game for Huskies, 4-1 on the road this season. ... Memphis 11-4 at home. .. Tigers 1-3 in last four games. ... Series: UConn leads, 4-3, winning 81-78 in last meeting on Jan. 9 in Storrs. Gibbs had a season-high 26 points. Huskies scored 23 pts off turnovers. ... Goodwin top scorer in AAC games at 19.5. Fouled out in last meeting with 23 pts. ... Top reserve: 6-7 swingman Trahson Burrell (10.1 pts, 6.4 rebs). Status questionable for tonight due to team disciplinary action. ... Memphis leads league in scoring (76.6) in conference action. ... Tigers score 26.2 percent of pts from FT line, fifth best total in nation. ... Hot: Huskies first in AAC in FT percentage at 76.1. Cold: Sixteen of UConn's foes shot under 40 percent from field. ... Second game back from injury for Amida Brimah. Needs four blocks to pass Donyell Marshall and move into 3rd place on program's all-time list. ... Up next: UConn hosts East Carolina at noon Sunday in Storrs.
— Gavin Keefe