Rivals UConn, Providence begin Big East season in Hartford
The stage is set for what should be an electrifying and entertaining Big East Conference opener.
The first sellout crowd at the XL Center in Hartford since Feb. 16, 2020, will be on hand at 5 p.m. Saturday to create a super-charged atmosphere.
No. 20 UConn and Providence, two long-time New England rivals located about 50 miles apart, will battle for bragging rights.
Both the Huskies (9-2) and the Friars (10-1) are off to impressive starts and are determined to make an early statement in the Big East.
"It's honestly going to be crazy," junior Jalen Gaffney said before practice Friday. "We haven't played before a sold-out crowd in the XL Center for a while, probably the Memphis game, I believe. And that game was insane.
"But we're prepared for it. We've been preparing the whole week for Providence. It's going to be a good game."
For most of the Huskies, it will be their first real Big East experience. Last year, they played before either empty arenas or limited crowds due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Expect coach Dan Hurley to hit 10 on the intensity scale.
"It's the first real big home game in a long time," Hurley said. "It feels different, definitely, the lead up to this one. It's exciting. That's what it is all about. You can't wait to get to game night, get to the arena, play against a top 25 level opponent. Whether Providence is ranked or not, they should be ranked based on what they've done to this point.
"So, we're looking at it like it's a game with two top teams in a wild environment."
Both teams last played a week ago on Saturday, Dec. 11.
The break between games allowed UConn's injured starters Tyrese Martin (wrist) and Adama Sanogo (abdominal strain) some time to improve. Martin, who's missed the last four games, is more likely to play against Providence than Sanogo, who's been out for three games.
"He's got a great chance as long as he doesn't have a setback," Hurley said of Martin. "Not sure if there will be a minutes restriction on him relative to the conditioning thing. Everything looks really good for him.
"Adama is doing more. He desperately wants to be out there. We'll see how he feels after he does a lot more than he's been doing today in practice. Could he give us some spot minutes? We'll see."
The two teams are similar in that both heavily rely on effort, rebounding and defense. The Huskies have limited opponents to 37.5 percent from the field and 62.1 points per game and the Friars have held foes to 40.2 percent and 62.3 points.
Hurley called the Friars the best offensive rebounding team that UConn has played. Martin, if he plays, could help in that department.
"They have a similar game to us," graduate forward Isaiah Whaley said. "Their offense really comes from offensive rebounds if they're not making a lot of shots and that's what we kind of do, too. They're really physical. Coach (Hurley) has been emphasizing that it's going to be the most physical game of the year that we've played.
"We've been really getting after it in practice and going over some things that are going to help us win."
UConn will have to contain inside strongman Nate Watson, a 6-foot-10, 260-pound center that leads the team in scoring at 15.3 points and averages 5.5 rebounds.
When the two teams split the last season's series, Watson scored 17 points in PC's win and just six in the loss.
Hurley said the key to defending Watson is to play great pre-catch defense and push him away from the low post. This is where UConn will really miss the inside presence of Sanogo.
"We just have to try to make it difficult for him," said Whaley, who will guard Watson. "He's a great player. If he gets comfortable just a little bit, he can be really dangerous."
Watson, a preseason All-Big East first team pick, and impactful Indiana transfer Al Durham (13.5 points) are two of four graduate players in a veteran starting lineup. Senior guard A.J. Reeves is a lethal shooter when on his game.
The outcome may come down to which team can generate a consistent offensive attack.
"When we get our looks, we've got to finish," Hurley said. "We've got to finish at the rim. We've got to make shots from the 3-point line. Our defense, our rebounding, our toughness, and our will will carry us to a point. We've just gotta make enough shots."
The Friars were picked to finish seventh in the preseason Big East coaches' poll while the Huskies were second.
NO. 20 UCONN vs. PROVIDENCE
Location: XL Center, Hartford
Tip: 5 p.m. (Ch. 61)
Records: UConn 9-2, Providence 10-1
Last game: UConn beat St. Bonaventure, 74-64, Saturday; Providence defeated Central Connecticut, 68-53, Saturday
Probable starters: UConn, 6-1 grad. guard R.J. Cole (16 pts, 4.2 assists), 6-6 so. Andre Jackson (6.8 pts, 7.5 rebs), 6-5 fr. guard Jordan Hawkins (7.9 pts), 6-9 grad. forward Isaiah Whaley (7.6 pts, 5 rebs, 2.3 blks), 6-9 r-jr. forward Akok Akok (5.2 pts, 5 rebs)
Providence, 6-4 grad guard Al Durham (13.5 pts, 3.7 assists), 6-6 sr. guard A.J. Reeves (10.7 pts, 3.1 rebs), 6-7 grad forward Justin Minaya (5.5 pts, 5.1 rebs), 6-8 grad forward Noah Horchler (10.6 pts, 8.2 rebs), 6-10 grad center Nate Watson (15.3 pts, 5.5 rebs)
Noteworthy: Big East opener for both teams. ... Series: UConn leads 45-29, winning last meeting 73-61 Feb. 16, 2021 in Storrs. PC took the last three meetings in Hartford and 9-6 overall at XL Center. ... Friars riding 5-game win streak. ... Best PC wins: 63-58 at Wisconsin, 72-68 vs. Texas Tech. Only loss to Virginia, 58-40. ... Friars 123-271 all-time vs. Top 25 foes, including 2-2 last season. ... Watson a preseason All-Big East first team pick. ... Injury update: Tyrese Martin (wrist) probable, Adama Sanogo (abdominal strain) doubtful, PC guard Jared Bynum (ankle) game time decision. ... Top reserve: so. guard Alyn Breed (4.8 pts). ... Ed Cooley 2-5 vs. UConn as Friar coach. ... PC shooting 45 percent from field, 32 percent from three, 72.5 percent from foul line. ... Friars 10-0 when scoring 60 points or more. ... Martin averaged 15.5 pts and 8 rebs in two games vs. PC last season. ... Hot: Huskies are 9-0 sinking at least seven 3-pointers in a game. Cold: Tyler Polley shooting 35.6 percent from the field. ... UConn is 18-24 in Big East openers, losing last season in overtime to Creighton. ... Huskies first in league in blocks (7.0) and offensive rebounds (15.0) per game. ... Up next: UConn opens a two-game road trip by visiting Marquette Tuesday night.
— Gavin Keefe
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