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UConn returns from exam break with a defensive mindset

Storrs — There was a time when a zone defense was something kept in a dusty glass case and only busted out for use in case of emergencies.

The UConn basketball program has been built on stingy man-to-man defense, dating back to former coach Jim Calhoun's early seasons in Storrs. The limited occasions that Calhoun employed zone only reinforced why he disliked it.

Circumstances this season have forced current coach Kevin Ollie to shatter the glass more than he'd prefer.

With only eight healthy scholarship players available, Ollie is increasingly relying on playing zone out of necessity, to keep players fresh and out of foul trouble.

Numbers show the Huskies are thriving defensively in the last three games, allowing an average of 54.3 points and holding foes to 35.8 percent. An active zone has played a significant role in that success and kept the Huskies in games.

"I'm not surprised," Ollie said. "We work on it a lot. ... I like to play man to man. But with the injuries and lack of bodies that we do have, we've been implementing it a little bit more. I guess it's made me a better coach because I've implemented it a little bit more and trusted it a little bit more."

In what limited practice time they've had during their exam break, the Huskies worked on polishing the rough spots in their zone. They realize it just might be their ticket to helping them mount a winning streak. They carry a 4-5 record into Sunday's non-conference game against North Florida at Gampel Pavilion (1 p.m., SNY).

"We want to perfect that," sophomore Jalen Adams said of the zone. "We've been having a lot of success with that so we want to keep working on that."

"... We're definitely comfortable playing zone. We've been doing it all of this year. I think we've just got to work on it so our bigs can stay out of foul trouble, we keep the ball out of the middle and force guys to shoot perimeter shots."

Expect Ollie to mix in zone with man-to-man against the Ospreys (4-9), who are better than their record indicates. North Florida already has played six Power Six foes, with losses to Auburn, Miami, LSU, Florida, Syracuse and Arkansas.

Senior Dallas Moore, the defending Atlantic Sun Conference Player of the Year, is a scoring threat from just about anywhere on the court. He's scored at least 30 points in four of the last five games, raising his overall average to 23.2 points per game. No one else averages in double figures.

Ollie called North Florida a scary team.

"They've played some great teams," Ollie said. "They're a really, really good team. ... They've got an NBA caliber point guard, Dallas Moore. He's going to get some looks at the NBA. He's a wonderful, wonderful guard ... puts pressure on the defense. They've got (Wajid) Aminu, a hybrid four man that just had 24 (points) and 11 (rebounds) the last game, then they've got a big named (Romelo) Banks, they throw it to him.

"We're going to have to play real solid defense. Hopefully, our man to man is strong. We've got to take Moore out of the game."

The Huskies will try to limit the number of times that Moore will touch the ball. But they can't zero in on him so much that they ignore his supporting cast, Ollie said.

Until they consistently increase their offensive production, it will be up to the defense to carry the Huskies. They rank 306th in the nation in scoring offense at 66.6 points per game.

They have two more non-conference games, including Friday's contest against Auburn in Hartford, before beginning American Athletic Conference play.

There's still a lot of items on UConn's To-Do-List. Defense isn't one of them.

"I think our defense is good," freshman Christian Vital said. "We just need to get more rebounds, not allow the other teams to get second chances on offensive rebounds and then when we get on offense be solid, and that starts with taking better shots."

g.keefe@theday.com

UCONN vs. NORTH FLORIDA

Location: Gampel Pavilion, Storrs

Tip: 1 p.m. (SNY)

Records: UConn 4-5, North Florida 4-9

Last game: UConn lost at Ohio State, 64-60, Saturday; North Florida beat Thomas University, 110-80, Thursday

Probable starters: UConn, 6-3 so. guard Jalen Adams (17.9 pts, 5.3 assists, 4.9 rebs), 6-2 fr. guard Christian Vital (6.9 pts), 6-4 r-sr. guard Rodney Purvis (12.2 pts, 4.7 rebs), 6-11 so. forward Steve Enoch (2.6 pts, 2.7 rebs), 7-0 sr. center Amida Brimah (6.6 pts, 5.6 rebs, 2.9 blks)

North Florida, 6-1 sr. guard Dallas Moore (23.2 pts, 3.5 rebs, 3.7 assists), 6-5 r-sr. guard Aaron Bodager (6.4 pts, 3.8 rebs), 6-6 fr. Forward Garrett Sams (9.3 pts, 3.8 rebs), 6-7 fr. forward Wajid Aminu (9.7 pts, 6.2 rebs), 6-11 r-jr. center Romelo Banks (9.4 pts, 6.7 rebs)

Noteworthy: UConn coming off 8-day exam break. ... First meeting between two teams. ... North Florida won last two Atlantic Sun Conference regular-season titles. ... First season in Division I in 2005-06. ... Moore defending Atlantic Sun player of the year. Averaged 30.5 pts in losses to Syracuse and Florida. ... Ospreys 0-6 in road games. ... Top reserve: 6-7 r-so. forward Karlos Odum (5 pts, 2.3 rebs). ... Wins over Edward Waters, Florida National, North Dakota, Thomas. ... Purvis Watch: Needs 45 points to reach 1,000 in his UConn career. ... UConn ranks 306th in scoring offense (66.6) in Division I. Averaging just 56.7 pts at home. ... Hot: Adams averaging 17.3 pts in last 4 games. Cold: UConn shooting 42.7 percent from field. ... Adams (37.2), Purvis (36.0) top two in AAC in minutes played per game. ... Up next: UConn hosts Auburn Friday in Hartford.

— Gavin Keefe

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