It’s almost always a good thing for sports teams to fly under the radar, and that’s what the UConn men’s basketball team seems to be doing right now.
Since opening American Athletic Conference with a trio of ugly losses to drop to 5-9 overall, UConn has won seven of their last 10 games, including five of their last six. They’ve done so mostly by beating up on the dregs of the conference, but they’re taking care of business efficiently, and that cannot be said for many of the games they played against lesser competition early in the year.
Ever so quietly, as Cincinnati and SMU grab the conference headlines and the UConn women dominate the Storrs news cycle, the Huskies have clawed their way to fifth place in the American standings, and they can take fourth by beating Memphis tonight in Hartford.
The season remains an unquestionable disappointment, but there’s potential for a run here.
The realistic path to an at-large NCAA bid closed a while ago, but UConn has been here before. The last two seasons, they essentially needed to win the conference tournament to punch their ticket, falling just short in 2015 before getting the job done last year. The same is true this season.
Just like in 2015, the Huskies will have the undeniable advantage of playing the 2017 tournament on their home floor in Hartford. It helped them immensely two years ago to scrape by a pair of more talented teams in Cincinnati and Tulsa, before UConn ran out of gas against No. 1 seeded SMU.
That season, however, UConn had to win four games in four days after failing to secure a top-five seed in regular season play and in turn, a first-round bye. That’s not quite as difficult as winning five games in five days, an obstacle the program has memorably leaped over in the past, but it’s extremely difficult.
By whomping the conference’s lowest tier of teams this season, the Huskies have climbed up the American standings from an 0-3 start to the No. 5 seed, perched above UCF, Tulsa and Temple, all of whom UConn has played considerably better than in recent weeks.
The final six games are going to be difficult – repeat matchups against Memphis, Houston, SMU and Cincinnati, all of whom have handled UConn easily this season, along with a typically deadly trip to Philadelphia to face Temple – but this is a noticeably stronger UConn team than it was earlier this season. Also, the Huskies will see Memphis, SMU and Cincinnati on their home floor this time around.
Get the No. 5 seed, and you get a first-round bye. In that scenario, the Huskies would still have to bring down three teams from the SMU-Cincinnati-Houston-Memphis quartet, but not have to expend energy crunching one of the American’s bottom-feeders the day before beginning the gauntlet – that’s hugely important.
Maybe you’ve read all this, talked yourself into an unlikely scenario in which these Huskies end up in the NCAA tournament, and thought, “Do they really have a shot to beat SMU and Cincinnati?” Well at home they just might, with one crucially important caveat: Senior Rodney Purvis has to play well in those games. He absolutely must.
Purvis has been on fire recently, averaging 17.8 points per game while shooting 20-for-32 from 3-point range over the last five games. When he excels, the team excels.
It is nearly impossible to imagine a scenario in which point guard Jalen Adams, as excellent a player as he can be, singlehandedly carries UConn to the American title. He needs a co-gunner, and it probably won’t be a freshman or senior Kentan Facey, who was ineffective in the Cincinnati rout on Feb. 4.
It needs to be Purvis, who has never shrunk from the moment. He did nearly drag the Huskies to a win over SMU in the 2015 American title game, scoring 29 points on 11-for-22 shooting, and played arguably his best game this season in a win over Syracuse at Madison Square Garden. He has the chops to do so, but the question is whether or not he brings the shooting touch that weekend.
Can they pull off the unlikely run and punch an NCAA ticket? It’s UConn, so you know the answer to that. The chips are stacked against Kevin Ollie’s team, but if recent weeks are any indication, they definitely have a chance.