UConn men continue a brutal stretch with trip to No. 25 Houston
The schedule makers didn't do UConn any favors.
The rebuilding Huskies are nearing the end of a stretch as brutal as the frigid January weather.
They'll be playing on the road for the fourth time in the last six games on Thursday, visiting No. 25 Houston for a 9 p.m. American Athletic Conference meeting at the Fertitta Center.
It will also be their third straight game against a ranked opponent. That hasn't happened to them in the regular season since the 1998-99 national championship season when they played at No. 9 St. John's, hosted No. 16 Syracuse and visited No. 4 Stanford.
UConn is narrowing the competitive gap against ranked foes, going 1-3 but losing by a combined 10 points, twice in double overtime, this season.
Their most recent loss — a 61-55 decision — came at No. 14 Villanova on Saturday. They've dropped four of their last five overall.
Coach Dan Hurley is encouraging his team to keep a positive mindset. The older players have to avoid the here-we-go-again mentality and the younger ones have to not "start wearing losing like a shirt," Hurley said.
Recent signs indicate the Huskies are making progress, especially in the effort and attitude departments.
"For the majority of the season, we've been a team that people don't necessarily want to play," Hurley said Saturday. "I think the wins will be there for us in the next 14 (games) if we just stay with it and don't get discouraged by another gut-wrenching loss to a quality team on the road.
"There's not a player in that locker room that's ever had a winning season in college. You've got to stay after it. You've got to stay diligent with your work ethic. Your love and passion for the game has got to kick in. We're this close."
The last time UConn faced Houston it suffered an embarrassingly bad defeat, falling 84-45 in the AAC tournament quarterfinals last March. They've lost six of the last seven meetings in the series.
The Cougars (14-4, 4-1) have risen to elite status among AAC teams in recent years. They've finished in the top three in the league four straight seasons, including winning the 2018-19 regular-season crown. They're the preseason favorite this season and reside in first place.
Winners of eight of its last nine games, Houston cracked the top 25 this week for the first time this season. Their only loss during that stretch came at Tulsa on Jan. 11. They're balanced and deep, with 10 players averaging at least 10 minutes per game and four scoring in double figures. They're also beasts on the boards, leading the nation in rebounding margin (11.1) and ranking second in offensive rebounds per game (14.9).
It will take an inspired effort by the Huskies to be in the hunt for an upset win.
They've learned some important lessons in recent games.
"We've just got to stay together as a team and we'll be fine," redshirt junior Alterique Gilbert said.
While UConn has become a relatively sound defensive team, it remains flawed offensively. The Huskies are searching for shooting help on the perimeter to fill the void left by junior Tyler Polley who's out with a season-ending knee injury.
In the two games without Polley, the team's top 3-point weapon, UConn is an icy 7-for-34 from beyond the arc. The Huskies froze up when Villanova switched to zone late in the second half, contributing to their demise.
No healthy player on the roster is shooting better than 33 percent from 3-point range.
"That's a problem," Hurley said. "That's certainly an issue. ... We're going to need it from (James) Bouknight, from Brendan (Adams), from Christain (Vital). We're going to have to solve that. Losing Tyler hurt us in a number of ways."
At least UConn's brutal stretch will come to an end Thursday night.
The Huskies begin a two-game homestand on Sunday. The opponent?
Tulsa, the AAC co-leader entering Wednesday's action.
UConn at No. 25 Houston
Location: Fertitta Center, Houston
Tip-off: 9 p.m. (ESPNU)
Records: UConn 10-7, 1-3; Houston 14-4, 4-1
Last game: UConn lost at Villanova, 61-55, Saturday; Houston won at Wichita State, 65-54, Saturday
Probable starters: UConn, 6-0 r-jr. guard Alterique Gilbert (9.7 pts, 4.8 assists), 6-2 sr. guard Christian Vital (14.2 pts, 6.8 rebs), 6-4 fr. guard James Bouknight (9.5 pts, 3.4 rebs), 6-9 r-fr. forward Akok Akok (6.5 pts, 6.2 rebs, 2.9 blks), 6-11 jr. center Josh Carlton (10 pts, 6.8 rebs)
Houston, 6-1 fr. guard Marcus Sasser (6.8 pts), 6-5 r-jr. guard DeJon Jarreau (9.2 pts, 3.9 rebs, 3.4 assists), 6-5 so. guard Nate Hinton (11.6 pts, 9.7 rebs), 6-7 jr. forward Fabian White, Jr., 6-10 r-sr. center Chris Harris, Jr. (4.1 pts, 4.9 rebs, 2.2 blks)
Noteworthy: UConn is 4-27 in its last 31 games vs. Top 25 teams. Last road win vs. ranked team Jan. 2014 at Memphis. ... Houston defending AAC regular season champ and preseason favorite. ... UConn trying to avoid starting AAC play 1-4 for second straight season. ... Series: UConn trails 8-5, losing three straight by double digits including last meeting, 84-45 in AAC tourney quarterfinals. ... Top reserve: so. guard Quentin Grimes (12.8 pts, 3.8 rebs), a Kansas transfer. ... UConn national leader in blocks per game (7.1). ... Hinton second in AAC in rebs per game. Akok 1st in blks, Harris Jr. 2nd. ... Hot: Houston won 8 of last 9 games. Cold: UConn 12-for-56 from 3-point range in last three games. ... Huskies 0-2 since Polley suffered season-ending injury. ... Vital needs 8 pts to pass Kevin Freeman and move into 20th in program's all-time scoring list. ... UConn 1-11 in true road games since start of last season. ... Houston 7-2 at home. ... Up next: UConn hosts Tulsa Sunday at noon in Hartford.
— Gavin Keefe
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