Say what you will about the American Athletic Conference, but at least it has given UConn a real rival to add their docket.
On Thursday, the Huskies will renew their series with No. 21 SMU at the XL Center in Hartford.
It will be the seventh all time meeting between the programs. SMU holds a commanding 5-1 advantage, including a victory in last year’s American Athletic Conference tournament championship game.
“They’ve been playing great,” UConn head coach Kevin Ollie said about the Mustangs (21-3, 9-3 the American). “Their offensive efficiency is great. They’re always stellar on the defensive end. We have to get back in transition and play a solid game.”
UConn (18-7, 8-4 the American) is coming off a disheartening 75-73 victory over Tulsa their last time out. It was a frustrating result, considering the Huskies held a 20-point lead in the first half of that game.
UConn has developed a nasty trend of building big leads only to see them crumble as the game goes on. Pulling that against a team as good as SMU (the Mustangs were ranked as high as No. 8 in the AP poll this year) would be a recipe for disaster.
“We just have to have the will to prepare and play 40 minutes. We always say ‘30 tough’ (in reference to the shot clock) so hopefully they can start doing that. We’ve been playing good in spurts, it’s just coming down to making shots in winning time and winning players stepping up. We’ll do that,” Ollie said.
SMU, ineligible for postseason play due to NCAA sanctions, has surprised many around the country. It was expected that, without anything to play for, the Mustangs would simply coast through the season. The opposite has been true. SMU started the year 18-0 and generally looked like a team that could contend for a national title given the opportunity. SMU was the last undefeated team in the country before losing to Temple Jan. 24.
“I knew coach (Larry) Brown would light a fire under them. They play aggressively. They want to win the conference outright, I think that’s what they’re playing for. They’re playing for the pride of SMU, trying to show up everyday, every game and play their best basketball,” Ollie said.
Ollie was a key bench contributor to the Philadelphia 76ers when they went to the NBA Finals in the 2000-01 season. The head coach? Larry Brown. The two have a well-established mutual respect. Ollie spoke of his former coach with admiration.
“It’s an honor, first and foremost. I have so much respect for what he’s done, not only in the collegiate game, but for what he’s done in the NBA, and with how many lives he’s touched. I’m one of the lives he’s touched immensely and I am thankful for that,” Ollie said.
The Mustangs are led by reigning AAC Player of the Year, Nic Moore. He leads SMU in scoring, 16.7 ppg and 5.7 apg. He is supported by a wealth of depth. Six other Mustangs average at least 9.5 ppg, including senior forward Markus Kennedy. Kennedy was a key force in SMU’s 62-54 victory in the AAC tournament championship game a year ago, scoring 15 points and grabbing 6 rebounds.
UConn is led by four double-digit scorers, forward Shonn Miller (13.4), guard Rodney Purvis (13.3), guard Sterling Gibbs (12.6) and forward Daniel Hamilton (11.7). Hamilton also leads the team in rebounding (9.1) and assists (5.1).
Senior guard Omar Calhoun broke news on Wednesday when he informed the media that he would be in the starting lineup. Calhoun scored 14 points on 5 of 8 shooting against Tulsa.
Thursday’s night game will be broadcast on ESPN2. UConn has announced that they will be wearing new blue uniforms for the game and want fans to wear blue as well, causing a “Blue Out” for the rivalry matchup.