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UConn men face uphill climb at SMU

UConn may be walking into a hornet's nest tonight.

It will be hard for the Huskies to avoid getting stung.

They are playing at No. 24 Southern Methodist, a basketball team on a mission to win the American Athletic Conference regular-season title. That's all the co-AAC leading Mustangs (24-4, 14-4) have to play for since they're ineligible to compete in postseason.

Plus, Thursday is the Senior Night at Moody Coliseum in Dallas (9 p.m., ESPN2), so emotion will be on SMU's side. The Mustangs will be out to avenge a 68-62 loss in the first meeting on Feb. 18 in Hartford.

And, as part of a marketing campaign to promote the school, UConn took out a full page ad in the Dallas Morning News on Monday that said: "This Ain't Our First Rodeo. UConn is excited to be back in Texas, where we wrote the most recent chapter in our championship legacy."

UConn won national championships in Arlington (2014), Houston (2011) and San Antonio (2004).

A bad idea to poke a stick at the AAC's top team.

The Huskies (20-9, 10-6) are still fighting to qualify for the NCAA tournament with two regular-season games remaining, including Sunday's home finale against Central Florida. Prior to Wednesday's action, UConn ranked 53rd in the NCAA's RPI.

The Huskies didn't expect to be in this position entering the season. They're in jeopardy of sitting out the NCAA tournament in consecutive seasons for the first time in 27 years (1988-89, 1987-88).

"I haven't made the tournament and a couple my teammates haven't made the tournament," sophomore Daniel Hamilton said, "so it's real frustrating. We've just got to make up in our mind that we've got to win these next couple of games."

"... We've got to definitely go out and play (Thursday's) game like a tournament game. We can't overlook SMU. I know they're going to be fired up because we beat them the first game. So we've got to go in there definitely look at it like a tournament game and just play hard."

A disappointing 75-68 home loss against Houston knocked UConn down to sixth place in the AAC standings. Coach Kevin Ollie questioned his team's heart, toughness and effort as well as being critical of other areas. The Huskies allowed a season-high 51.9 percent from the field.

It's a bad sign that at this late stage of the season the Huskies are still battling bouts of inconsistency.

"It's been like that the whole year," Ollie said. "You get up high and then you go down low. There's just a lack of focus and lack of leadership. We've got to get better the next two games. ... Hopefully we'll have an up against SMU."

Pressure is building for the Huskies, who can still find a path to an NCAA bid even if they lose tonight.  A victory would provide a significant boost.

Since losing to UConn, SMU has captured three straight, beating East Carolina, Memphis and Tulane. The Mustangs do just about everything well, ranking first in the AAC in field goal percentage (50.0), 3-point field goal percentage (42.7) and rebound margin (plus 10.6). Senior Nic Moore has an excellent shot at repeating at AAC player of the year.

UConn won the first meeting by playing sound defense, limiting SMU to 43 percent, while also taking care of the basketball (only seven turnovers) and holding their own on the boards, losing by just two (35-33). Junior center Amida Brimah had perhaps the best game of his career, finishing with 16 points, eight rebounds and five blocks.

The Huskies have dropped their only three previous road trips to SMU, which is 49-4 at Moody Coliseum over the last three seasons.

"We've just got to make sure we play together," Brimah said. "We put ourselves in this situation. We've just got to make sure we dig ourselves out of it."

g.keefe@theday.com

Twitter: @GavinKeefe

UCONN at NO. 24 SMU

Location: Moody Coliseum, Dallas, Texas

Tip: 9 p.m. (ESPN2)

Records: UConn 20-9, 10-6; SMU 24-4, 12-4

Last game: UConn lost to Houston, 75-68, Sunday; SMU beat Tulane, 74-53, Sunday

Probable starters: UConn, 6-2 grad. guard Sterling Gibbs (11.8 pts), 6-3 fr. guard Jalen Adams (7 pts), 6-7 so. forward Daniel Hamilton (11.6 pts, 8.9 rebs, 5 assists), 6-7 grad. forward Shonn Miller (13 pts, 5.6 rebs), 7-0 jr. center Amida Brimah (7.1 pts, 4.6 rebs, 2.5 blks)

SMU, 5-9 sr. guard Nic Moore (16.1 pts, 5.3 assists), 6-5 fr. guard Shake Milton (10.9 pts), 6-6 jr. guard Sterling Brown (9.8 pts, 4.5 rebs), 6-7 fr. forward Jordan Tolbert (11.6 pts, 8.4 rebs), 6-8 jr. forward Ben Moore (12 pts, 7.4 rebs)

Noteworthy: Next to last regular season game for both teams. Senior Night for SMU. ... Huskies 1-2 vs. ranked teams this season. ... SMU tied for first, UConn sixth in AAC. ... Series: UConn trails, 5-2, but won last meeting, 68-62, Feb. 18 in Hartford. Brimah led Huskies with 16 pts, 8 rebs, 5 blks. ... UConn never won at SMU (0-3). ... SMU 15-1 at home, UConn 6-3 on the road. ... Nic Moore leading AAC player of the year candidate. Second in AAC in scoring, first in assists. ... SMU in top 10 in 7 NCAA stat categories, including 4th in FG percentage (50.0) and 3-pt FG (42.7), 5th in rebound margin (+10.6). ... Brown top 3-point shooter in AAC at 53.8 percent. ... Top reserve: 6-9 sr. forward Markus Kennedy (9.5 pts, 6.4 rebs). ... Huskies 3-6 vs. teams above them in standings. ... Hot: Gibbs first in AAC in FT shooting at 85 percent. Cold: Reserve Omar Calhoun converting 30 percent (6-for-20) in last four games. ... RPI Watch: UConn 53rd, SMU 11th. ... Up next: UConn hosts Central Florida Sunday in Storrs.

— Gavin Keefe

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