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Huskies have chance to prove themselves as Big East contenders this week

February is a revealing month in the college basketball world.

It's when the best teams in a conference separate themselves from the pack, taking the path of a contender rather than one of a pretender.

UConn is scheduled to play nine Big East games in February, including defending regular-season champion Villanova and Xavier, two nationally-ranked programs, each twice.

The fun begins Tuesday at the XL Center in Hartford where No. 17 UConn hosts Creighton (6:30 p.m., FS1). The Huskies (15-4, 6-2) are one of the Big East's hottest teams, riding a five-game winning streak. They're off to their best start in conference play since 2008-09 when they began 12-1.

A difficult non-conference schedule has prepared them for the challenges that lie ahead.

"Winning games that you're supposed to win in conference, home and on the road, and not having a slip-up is rare," coach Dan Hurley said on Monday. "It's hard to win four or five games in a row in the league. It doesn't get done a lot. Even the start that we have had to the conference season, it has been a while since UConn has had this good of a start.

"Every conference game is hard. We are focused on the next game and trying to continue not to lose. When we hit March, we want to feel like we are in the hunt for a regular-season championship."

To achieve that goal, UConn must keep up with Providence (18-2, 8-1) and Villanova (16-5, 9-2). The Huskies reside in third place.

Creighton (12-7, 4-4) inflicted more pain on UConn than any Big East team last season, winning all three meetings. In the Big East tournament semifinals, the Bluejays rallied from a five-point deficit in the final six minutes to post a 59-56 win. UConn guard R.J. Cole missed the last four and a half minutes after suffering a concussion.

The Bluejays, who didn't return a starter from last season's NCAA Sweet Sixteen team, are young but still dangerous. Just ask Villanova, which lost by 20 to Creighton on Dec. 17.

All five starters average from 9.1 points to 12.8 points per game. Ryan Kalkbrenner, a 7-foot-1 sophomore center, is a player to watch, averaging 12.1 points, 7.1 rebounds and 3.1 blocks.

"(Coach) Greg (McDermott) has a culture in place where they have been good for so long now that they've got the program confidence where whoever puts on a uniform there, they're going to be successful and they're going to win and they're going to be NCAA caliber," Hurley said. "They do have a number of young players playing, which not a lot of teams have that many freshmen in key roles."

Hurley added that Creighton's newcomers, including guard Ryan Newbhard and forward Arthur Kaluma, aren't playing like freshmen.

Creighton is looking to rebound from blowing a 19-point halftime lead in a 74-64 loss to Xavier, which opened the second half on a devastating 29-2 spurt.

The visitors have dropped four of their last six games, including two straight.

"They'll be desperate," Hurley said. "We can't allow them to be more desperate than us coming in having lost two in a row."

On Saturday, UConn suffered a significant drop-off in its offensive production in a 57-50 win at DePaul. R.J. Cole, who had 25 points, accounted for nearly half of his team's points. He converted nine of 17 field goals while the rest of the team went 13 for 42 (31 percent).

"You hope that you are not going to have too many games where it feels like everyone was struggling offensively except R.J.," Hurley said. "It just felt like guys were either out of rhythm or were guarded well or just didn't have a good day. You hope that doesn't happen a whole lot.

"The bottom line is, when you play conference games, you've got to find a way to win. The better teams and better programs, they find a way to win even when they have bad offensive games or different things happen to them. I like the fact we found a way to win a conference road game when we clearly weren't at our best."

News and notes

Because of the major snowstorm in southern New England, UConn left Chicago Saturday night after beating DePaul, flew to Albany (N.Y.) and took a bus back to Storrs, arriving about 4 a.m. ... Hurley took a break from his coaching duties on Sunday to watch the second half of Cincinnati's AFC Championship victory over Kansas City from his living room with his sons, Andrew and Danny. They're all huge Bengal fans. "I made them become Bengal fans and it wasn't going great for a long time for them," Hurley said. "So, it was a nice moment." ... On Super Bowl Sunday, Feb. 13, UConn will be playing against St. John's at noon at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

g.keefe@theday.com

No. 17 UCONN vs. CREIGHTON

Location: XL Center, Hartford

Tip: 6:30 p.m. (FS1)

Records: UConn 15-4, 6-2 Big East; Creighton 12-7, 4-4

Last game: UConn won at DePaul, 57-50, Saturday; Creighton lost to Xavier, 74-64, Saturday

Probable starters: UConn, 6-1 grad. guard R.J. Cole (16.1 pts, 4.6 assists), 6-6 so. Andre Jackson (7.6 pts, 7.8 rebs), 6-6 sr. guard Tyrese Martin (13.6 pts, 6.7 rebs), 6-9 grad forward Isaiah Whaley (7.1 pts, 5 rebs, 2.1 blks), 6-9 so. forward Adama Sanogo (15.5 pts, 8.4 rebs, 2.3 blks)

Creighton, 6-0 fr. guard Ryan Nembhard (11.8 pts, 4.2 assists), 6-6 sr. guard Alex O'Connell (12.8 pts, 5.3 rebs), 6-7 sr. forward Ryan Hawkins (12.6 pts, 7.3 rebs), 6-7 fr. forward Arthur Kalmuma (9.1 pts, 4.6 rebs), 7-1 so. center Ryan Kalkbrenner (12.1 pts, 7.1 rebs, 3.1 blks).

Noteworthy: Huskies looking to extend their winning streak to a season-high six straight. ... Bluejays lost four of their last six. ... Series: UConn trails, 3-0, losing all three last season including 59-56 decision in Big East tourney semifinals. ... Creighton owns Big East wins over Villanova, Marquette, St. John's and DePaul. ... Nembhard a serious contender for league rookie of the year award. ... Huskies 9-1 at home. ... Forty percent of CU's points this season are from freshmen. ... Top reserve: 6-4 fr. guard Trey Alexander (5.1 pts, 3.3 rebs). ... Creighton 2-4 vs. ranked teams. ... Kalkbrenner ranks second in Big East and 12th nationally in blocks per game at 3.1. ... UConn averages a league-best 79.4 points, Creighton 69.7, 10th. Bluejays first in FG percentage at 45.9, Huskies first in FG percentage defense at 38.5.. ... Hot: In the last two games, Cole 14 for 29 from the field, averaging 19.5 points, with nine assists and one turnover. Cold: Akok Akok only eights and six rebounds in the last five games. ... UConn has equaled last season's overall win total. ... Cole named to the weekly Big East honor roll. ... Huskies off to best overall start since 2013-14 national championship team that began the season 17-4. ... Up next: UConn visits No. 12 Villanova at noon Saturday in Philadelphia.

— Gavin Keefe

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