There have been few games this season where the UConn men’s basketball team has looked better as a unit than they did last Saturday. That rout, however, did come against a rebuilding Wichita State and at Gampel, where the Huskies have yet to lose.
On Thursday night, UConn will look to display that same kind of dominance, though this time against a stronger opponent on their turf. The Huskies take on UCF for the second time this season after dropping the first matchup, 65-53, at the XL Center on Jan. 5.
UConn (12-8, 3-4 The American) will likely have to do it without starting guard Alterique Gilbert, who injured his shoulder- the same shoulder that caused him to miss each of the last two seasons- in the win over the Shockers.
“He’s just sore,” Dan Hurley said during his radio show on Tuesday. “Structurally, everything is fine there. He took a heck of a hit and he’s sore in that area. We’ve got to be very careful. He can’t get back on the court until he feels 100 percent confident.”
Gilbert is still listed as day-to-day, and while he has yet to be officially ruled out, after missing practice on Monday and Tuesday his availability is certainly in doubt. If he can’t go, the Huskies lose their third-leading scorer at 13 points a night and arguably their best passer.
UCF (15-4, 5-2 The American) is just 3-2 since defeating the Huskies. The preseason favorite to win the conference, the Knights are currently in a three-way tie for third, and are below .500 on the road.
Since the first meeting with UConn, UCF has suffered two surprising losses in conference play. Last time out, the Knights had a meltdown against Memphis (13-7, 5-2), putting up just 57 points while giving up 77. For a team with some serious frontcourt talent, UCF got absolutely manhandled by the Tigers on the glass, being outrebounded 46-28 including 21 offensive boards.
Before that, on Jan. 16, the Knights fell to Wichita State, 67-75, the same Wichita team that the Huskies dismantled last weekend. And outside of those two losses, UCF needed to come back from 15 down to scrape out a two-point win over ninth place Tulsa. In other words, the Knights are certainly more beatable than most thought heading into the season.
Tacko Fall, a 7’6 center, is the most recognizable face on the UCF roster and presents a serious challenge to UConn’s inconsistent bigs. But it’s the backcourt duo of B.J. Taylor and Aubrey Dawkins, averaging 16.7 and 15.4 points per game respectively, who are usually most important to UCF’s success.
In the first meeting, the Huskies hung around for most of the game, tying it up late in the second. However, the Knights pulled away down the stretch, closing the game on a 25-13 run. Dawkins had a phenomenal game with 23 points on 9-of-13 shooting, while Fall had just three points (on one field goal attempt) and two blocked shots. Gilbert led the Huskies with 18, though he hoisted up 19 shots to get there.
“We’re just trying to get a top-tier win in the conference,” said forward Josh Carlton looking ahead to the matchup with UCF. “We’re gonna go in there hungry trying to get a win. We played them close last game but we just didn’t make enough shots. Hopefully we can get our shots falling this game.”
The Huskies lost four of their first five games on the conference slate. Now they’ve won two in a row, though both from the comfort of Gampel Pavilion. According to the players, they still have to prove their worth in a hostile environment.
“Our message is always to take care of home, but NCAA teams win on the road,” junior Christian Vital said after the win over Wichita. “This conference is a lot better than people thought it would be and it’s a lot better than it was in the past. Winning on the road ups our confidence and it shows how good of a team we can be. We definitely need to get wins on the road.”
Tipoff is at 9 p.m. on Thursday in Orlando.