The UConn men’s basketball team (3-4) will meet one of their old conference rivals on a grand stage on Monday night as they battle No. 22 Syracuse (5-2) in the Tire Pros Classic at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The old Big East foes will meet for the second year in a row, with Syracuse edging UConn 79-76 on Thanksgiving Day last year at the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament.
“Of course, when you go to Madison Square Garden, with Syracuse, and UConn…you have those memories come up, but you know, I don’t really care. I mean, it’s a game for us, we need a win desperately, and we want to go out there and play UConn type of basketball,” UConn head coach Kevin Ollie said at media availability Friday.
The Huskies will enter Monday fresh off a victory last week, but it wasn’t one that they’ll remember. UConn held off Boston University 51-49 in Hartford last Wednesday, with the two teams combining to shoot 35-for-11 from the field. UConn left with their third win despite shooting just 32 percent.
But in a season featuring home losses to Wagner and Northeastern, a win is a win.
“We ain’t making no excuses, but I’m very happy with the win. Finding ways to win, staying with it, we just gotta be a little more poised down the stretch. But overall, I’m very pleased with our defensive effort,” Ollie said after the game Wednesday.
The Huskies’ offense took a step back against BU after finding some life in the Maui Invitational a week before, topping the 90-point mark twice in three games. UConn appeared flummoxed by the Terriers’ zone defense, and they received very little help from guards Jalen Adams and Rodney Purvis. Adams and Purvis combined for 13 points on 5-for-25 shooting.
Scoring should become even more of an uphill climb on Monday as UConn is confronted by Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim’s vaunted 2-3 zone defense.
“This is going to be the first team that plays zone for 40 minutes. A lot of our other opponents went between man [defense] and zone, so this is a full-time zone team. Hopefully, we can knock some shots down on Monday, and I think that will help open up the zone,” UConn guard Christian Vital said Friday.
For all their offensive struggles, the Huskies certainly played a good game defensively against BU, holding the Terriers to 31 percent shooting, including a 16 percent mark from three-point range. UConn also forced 16 turnovers.
Syracuse enters Monday off of a similarly flat victory, as they held off North Florida 77-71 on Saturday afternoon at the home court in the Carrier Dome. That win helped the Orange snap a two-game losing streak, as their 4-0 start came to a halt against quality opponents South Carolina and Wisconsin.
Graduate transfer Andrew White III leads Syracuse in scoring, with 17.0 points per game on 46 percent shooting. Forward Tyler Lydon is the only other player in double digits, with 10.3 points per game.
Ollie emphasized the importance of rebounding on Monday, which could be an issue for a UConn team that had their fair share of struggles on the boards against BU. Lydon, Tyler Roberson and DaJaun Coleman are Syracuse’s three leading rebounders, combining for 17.8 boards per game.
“You got to rebound the basketball against [Syracuse]. Roberson is going in, I mean, he’s a human rebound. I mean, he’s going in there, crashing, so we got to get live, clean rebounds, and then we got to go out and execute on offense. They make you execute,” Ollie said.
UConn and Syracuse will tip off at Madison Square Garden in New York City at 7 p.m. The game can be seen on ESPN2.