UConn believes it can make a deep run in AAC tourney

UConn's Jalen Adams (4) controls the ball against Temple's J.P. Moorman II (4) and Josh Brown (1) in the game on Feb. 28 at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs. (AP Photo/Stephen Dunn)
UConn's Jalen Adams (4) controls the ball against Temple's J.P. Moorman II (4) and Josh Brown (1) in the game on Feb. 28 at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs. (AP Photo/Stephen Dunn)

Orlando, Fla. — History indicates that UConn is a tough out during tournament season.

No matter the season, no matter the record, no matter the conference tournament.

The Huskies have enjoyed success in the Big East Conference and now American Athletic Conference.

They've won more AAC Championship tournament games than any other team, going 10-3 and appearing in two title games, winning one. They've reached the semifinals in all four postseason events since the league formed.

They'll put that streak to the test at noon on Thursday in an AAC first round game against ninth-seeded Southern Methodist University (16-15) at the Amway Center.

"I think we've always had a nice run in our tournaments," coach Kevin Ollie said. "Even last year, getting to the semifinals when nobody really counted us in that last four of our conference. We're looking to repeat that. Hopefully, we can."

The challenge is more daunting this tournament season than previous ones in the AAC. The Huskies (14-17) are competing as a No. 8 seed, their worst starting position. Last year, they were a sixth seed.

Plus, only junior Jalen Adams and sophomore Christian Vital experienced tournament intensity before in their careers and know what it takes to survive and advance.

"Hopefully, we use that to our advantage that they don't know any better and they just play hard, "Ollie said. "You should not have to in a one-game elimination beg a player to play hard. That's going to be a given."

Adams has passed his March Madness wisdom on to his younger teammates so they have a better understanding of what they're facing.

"The intensity is turned all the way up to the maximum level," Adams said. "You've just got to get them to believe that anything can happen. We've had a record of showing that anything can happen with us being UConn and what happened two years ago in the same gym and same conference tournament."

Adams knows first-hand that anything can happen.

The last time Orlando hosted the AAC Championship in 2016, Adams authored a memorable moment in UConn postseason history while helping the Huskies win a quarterfinal thriller in four overtimes against Cincinnati. His 70-foot buzzer-beating basket in the third overtime kept his team alive.

UConn went on to beat Temple and then Memphis to capture the championship and qualify for the NCAA tournament.

But this is a different year.

The Huskies have struggled throughout the season and never hit their stride. They've played better as of late, especially on the offensive end, but not good enough to beat the league's elite programs.

Maybe the elimination format will instill in them a sense of urgency that's been missing this season.

"Right now, we know it's do or die," Vital said. "Our life is on the line. From this day forward, that's what we've got to live by. If we lose once, it's over. ... I know everyone is going to go out and give everything they have."

UConn is starting out tournament play by facing an injury-riddled SMU, which has had no more than seven scholarship players available in each of the last nine games. The Mustangs have gone 1-8 during the bad luck stretch.

Leading scorer and inspirational team leader Shake Milton remains out with a broken right hand. Coach Tim Jankovich said that it's unlikely that Milton will return for Thursday's game but left the door open. Without Milton, the Mustangs have started four guards, with junior Jahmal McMurray leading the way, and relied on a zone defense.

Milton was still healthy for the first and only meeting with UConn this season on Jan. 25 in Storrs. The Huskies won, 63-52.

UConn is preparing like Milton will play on Thursday.

"It's going to be a great matchup," Ollie said. "They've got some players that have been stepping in for Shake's injury. ... They're getting probably more invested in their time and understanding what coach (Jankovich) wants them to do on a day-to-day basis. I know they're going to have a renewed energy coming into the tournament, so we've got to play our best basketball."

The Huskies can draw some inspiration and motivation from their past tournament success. They'll attempt to add to the program's list of unlikely postseason runs.

First, they have to knock off SMU before worrying about meeting top-seeded Cincinnati in Friday's quarterfinals.

"It's not like we're trying to do something for the first time, that it can't be done," Vital said. "We know we can win this tournament. There's a lot of good teams out there. A lot of people in this league are playing good basketball right now. But I think our best basketball is ahead of us. We've just got to go out there and show it."

g.keefe@theday.com

UConn guard Antwoine Anderson, left, drives to the basket as Houston forward Fabian White Jr. defends during the game on March 4 at Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)
UConn guard Antwoine Anderson, left, drives to the basket as Houston forward Fabian White Jr. defends during the game on March 4 at Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)

UCONN vs. SOUTHERN METHODIST UNIVERSITY

Game: American Athletic Conference Championship first round

Location: Amway Center, Orlando, Fla.

Tip-off: noon (ESPNU)

Records: No. 8 seed UConn 14-17, No. 9 SMU 16-15

Probable starters: UConn, 6-3 jr. guard Jalen Adams (18.5 pts, 4.2 rebs, 4.7 assists), 6-2 so. guard Christian Vital (14.6 pts, 5.4 rebs), 6-2 grad. guard Antwoine Anderson (7 pts), 6-8 r-jr. forward Terry Larrier (14 pts, 4.7 rebs), 6-9 freshman forward Josh Carlton (4.6 pts, 3.8 rebs)

SMU, 6-0 jr. guard Jahmal McMurray (14.4 pts), 6-0 fr. guard Elijah Landrum (3 pts), 6-5 sr. guard Ben Emelogu II (10.3 pts, 5.3 rebs), 6-3 so. guard Jimmy Whitt (10.8 pts, 5.3 rebs, 3.5 assists), 6-8 sr. forward Akoy Agau (4.2 pts, 3.5 rebs)

Noteworthy: First of four AAC tournament games on Thursday. ... SMU a two-time champion, winning in 2015 and 2017, going 6-1 in event history. ... Huskies with a league-leading 10 tourney wins. Won their only AAC title last time Orlando hosted in 2016. ... Teams met only one time in previous tournaments, with SMU winning 62-54 in 2015 final in Hartford. ... Series: UConn trails 8-3, winning only meeting this season, 63-52, on Jan. 25 at Gampel. Huskies held Mustangs to 28 percent from field, Adams 18 pts, Vital 20 pts. Carlton with 12 rebs. ... Big question: Will Shake Milton play? SMU's leading scorer out last nine games with broken right hand. Injury-riddled Mustangs 1-8 without him. ... Top reserve: All-AAC rookie team pick Ethan Chargois (9.4 pts, 4.4 rebs). ... Hot: Adam averaging 24.5 pts in last five games. Cold: Huskies out-rebounded by almost an average of eight in last five games. ... Vital and Adams only two scholarship Huskies with postseason experience. ... Stat to watch: Huskies 11-1 when allowing fewer than 70 pts, 3-13 when allowing more. ... UConn 3-8 in last 11 games. ... Up next: Winner faces top-seeded Cincinnati (27-4) at noon Friday in quarterfinals.

— Gavin Keefe

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