On the bright side for the UConn men’s basketball team, there’s no uncertainty as to their path to an NCAA tournament bid. No bubble watching, no tense moments on Selection Sunday. Instead, the Huskies have just one simple path to the big dance: Win the conference tournament. If they do that, an automatic bid is secured. If they don’t, it’s the end of the road.
The path begins with the opening game of the American Athletic Conference tournament, when No. 9 seed UConn takes on No. 8 seed USF on Thursday at 1 p.m. in Memphis.
“I don’t even think like that,” senior Jalen Adams said when asked whether he’s thought about Thursday’s game as potentially his final in a UConn uniform. “I just have that confidence that we’re gonna win whatever game we’re going to if we do the right things.”
The two teams should be pretty familiar with each other by now, having met twice during the regular season. The first meeting was not so kind to UConn (15-16, 6-12 The American), falling 68-76 on USF’s home turf in their conference opener.
Less than two weeks ago, the Huskies got their revenge. On the day of the Ray Allen number retirement ceremony, UConn pulled out a two-point victory at Gampel Pavilion despite missing lead-scorer Jalen Adams and without making a 3-pointer all game.
Adams will be back for Thursday’s matchup, but Alterique Gilbert will not. Adams, who missed seven games with a knee injury, made a surprise return in the season finale win over ECU. Gilbert sustained a scary injury in last Thursday’s loss to Temple, and has since been diagnosed with a concussion and a left eye injury. He did not travel with the team.
USF (19-12, 8-10 The American) has been the conference’s biggest surprise this season. With 12 players on the roster who were either not on the team last year or did not see playing time, USF was not expected to be a contender. Picked to finish dead-last in the Preseason Coaches Poll, few thought the Bulls would even break .500.
They’ve certainly proved the doubters wrong, but that inexperience has begun to show in recent weeks. The Bulls enter the tournament having dropped four of their last five, the lone win coming against last-place Tulane, who have lost 20 straight games.
The backcourt duo of sophomore David Collins and redshirt junior Laquincy Rideau is the engine behind the USF offense, combining on average for 28 points per game.
The key, however, to taming the Bulls is to crash the glass. Led by 6-foot-8 redshirt freshman Alexis Yetna, USF grabs more offensive rebounds per game (14) than any team in the conference. The Huskies surrendered 20 offensive boards in their last meeting leading to 17 second-chance points, far too many to win many games in March.
“USF is a great offensive rebounding team, so we’ve got to really, really lock in that,” Adams said of the Huskies’ preparation this week.
With that in mind, while Adams may have resumed the star role of the team, perhaps no player is more crucial to UConn’s success than Josh Carlton. Earlier this week, the sophomore was co-awarded the conference’s Most Improved Player.
“Just very grateful for the coaches that voted me…and for my teammates for being there with me through this journey,” Carlton said on receiving the honor. “Now, every game is life or death for us.”
In the Huskies’ last three games, Carlton has averaged 19 points and nearly nine rebounds per game, shooting an absurd 81 percent from the field. That’s largely a product of his growing assertiveness around the rim, no longer looking for hook shots but rather dunking it with authority, and drawing plenty of fouls in the process. His aggressiveness will be counted on in rebounding especially, and the Huskies will need him to stay out of foul trouble.
“This time of year, if you’re not filled with energy and excitement, you shouldn’t be playing,” head coach Dan Hurley told the media on Wednesday.
UConn and USF will tip-off at the FedExForum in Memphis at 1 p.m.