It’s been an up-and-down season for the UConn men’s basketball team. Currently sitting at 14-17, their only chance at avoiding their second straight losing season is to win the American Athletic Conference tournament.
It’s UConn, it’s March and it’s Orlando, so anything is possible.
“The intensity is turned all the way up to the maximum level,” Jalen Adams, the team’s leading scorer, said. “We kind of have a record of showing that anything can happen with us being UConn and just what happened two years ago in the same conference tournament. We just gotta get the team to believe we can win and anything can happen at that point.”
The No. 8 Huskies will be taking on No. 9 SMU today at noon and will be broadcast on ESPNU. In their one meeting on Jan. 25, UConn played one of their better games and won 62-53. Since that game, the Mustangs have lost eight of their last nine and are stumbling into the tournament. And they will be without their best scorer, Shake Milton, who scored 18 against UConn in their last outing; and their best rebounder, Jarrey Foster, who did not play against UConn.
“We’re preparing like [Milton is] going to play,” head coach Kevin Ollie said. “They’re definitely a different team. Shake was an all-league player, in my opinion. Just a great shooter, great facilitator and he’s at their backbone, and that leadership comes from him.”
On the flip side, UConn has been playing some of their best basketball down the stretch, even if the end result doesn’t show it. They finally notched a quality win over Temple on Senior Night and led No. 25 Houston on their Senior Night for most of the second half, losing the game in the final four minutes.
That can’t happen if they expect to win in the tournament, Christian Vital said.
“Just being sound,” Vital said of what the Huskies need to do in the closing minutes. “I know sometimes, I’ve taken bad shots, or I’ve gambled on defense. Starting with myself, just try to tell myself to be more solid on both ends of the ball, start like that. And then hopefully I can encourage my teammates to do the same, and they’re doing that on their own and we’re just feeding off each other’s energy, and smart plays and effort, and then we’re putting it together and turning it into wins.”
For better or for worse, the Huskies have turned into a team that relies heavily on Adams to carry them through games. He averages the fifth-most minutes per game in Division I, 38.0, and has scored at least 22 points in his last four games played (he did not play against Cincinnati due to flu-like symptoms).
He’s going to have to come up big if UConn hopes to make a run, but he doesn’t see it like he’s carrying the team on his shoulders.
“I think I’ve been doing a better job getting going from the start of the game instead of waiting until the second half,” Adams said, “My teammates are just feeding me the ball whenever they see me get it going. They continue to get the ball to me.”
“Of course, people are tired,” he added. “It’s a long season. But you gotta fight through. Everybody in the NCAA is tired from a long season. You just gotta survive and compete each round.”
UConn’s shooting has unquestionably improved as of late, but they’ll need to improve their rebounding and their defense in the paint to neutralize SMU, which averages 11.5 offensive rebounds per game, on the glass.
Ollie realizes how bad the rebounding has been, but he believes ball movement is the key to a Husky win.
“I like how we’re moving the basketball. The last game against Temple was exceptional; the first 35 minutes against Houston was pretty good, too, especially that first half when we got down by 13,” Ollie said. “Just continue to have that ball hot and trust the pass. And if we can do that, we can compete.”
At the end of the day, though, it’s all about momentum, and especially after what happened two years ago, Ollie believes they have it on their side.
“Jalen is playing the last four games… he’s playing at another level, and hopefully we can ride how he’s been playing to create some momentum from other guys,” Ollie said. “Everybody needs to step up their level of play. That’s Terry [Larrier], that’s Antwoine [Anderson]. It’s lose or go home now.”