A year after they were stunned at the buzzer by eventual runner-up Michigan, the Houston men’s basketball team was expected to be pretty good this season. Few thought they’d be this good.
No team in the country has more wins than the No. 9 ranked Cougars (23-1, 10-1 The American), most recently a statement victory over then-No. 25 Cincinnati on Sunday when they held the Bearcats scoreless over the final six minutes of the game.
“Clearly the best team we’ve played, I have not seen a better team on film,” head coach Dan Hurley told the media after Wednesday’s practice. “They’re loaded, they’re coached, they’re mature. This is what we hope to look like in a couple years.”
The Huskies (13-11, 4-7 The American) will hope to make this Valentine’s Day a memorable one, hosting Houston on Thursday night.
The good news is the game will be played at the XL Center. Considering the Huskies are 1-9 away from home this season and Houston currently has the longest home win streak in the country at 32 straight, home court advantage will certainly be treasured.
The bad news is that UConn will be without lead scorer Jalen Adams as he works his way back from an MCL sprain, and will likely once again be without guard Alterique Gilbert, who is expected to miss his fifth consecutive game with a shoulder injury.
“Al’s doing better, he’s doing more, he’s got that smile back,” Hurley said on Wednesday. “Today was the first time he started doing some live stuff, but it’s been awhile. So obviously we’ll think about [playing him on Thursday], but it’s a tough ask to not play for a couple weeks and then just do some live work the day before a game.”
Gilbert, who took a hard shot to the shoulder against Wichita State, was initially listed as day-to-day and was expected to miss only a couple of games. On Wednesday, Hurley admitted the injury was worse than originally believed, but there are psychological obstacles as well.
“He was hurt, physically and mentally…There’s residual when you’ve dealt with what he’s dealt with,” Hurley said. “It was a mistake that night, the information I had when it first happened probably underplayed how long it would take to get him back. I should definitely not have played doctor.”
With the backcourt duo set to miss another game, there will once again be greater pressure on the younger players to step up. After Sunday’s loss to Memphis, Hurley sat down with the young core of the team, including Sidney Wilson, Tyler Polley, Brendan Adams and Josh Carlton, to insert some much-needed confidence.
“These young guys gotta give us hope as we’re trying to get through what’s been a tough period for this program,” Hurley said. “We met with them on Monday and we had a very specific message…to keep their spirits up. The last couple years are not the burden of Josh and Tyler and Sid and Brendan to carry, they haven’t been here for the losses and failures. We have to keep their spirits up because they’re not responsible for where UConn basketball is at right now.”
On Sunday, redshirt freshman Sidney Wilson answered that call with his best game in a UConn uniform, putting up 16 points, six rebounds and a trio of blocks.
“It was good to hear,” Wilson said about Hurley’s meeting. “Me and a couple of the younger guys were talking, and we’ve got to take more ownership of the team. I’ve been trying to be more vocal with Jalen and Alterique out. We’ve definitely had to grow up a lot quicker than they thought we would have to, and that will help us in the long run.”
In the short run, the Cougars present one of the best defenses in the country, allowing a conference-best 60.7 points per game, along with being the best rebounding team in the American. On offense, Houston may have lost Rob Gray to the NBA but still boast one of the most dangerous backcourt combos in the country in Corey Davis Jr. and Armoni Brooks.
“You’re always excited to play teams of the caliber of Houston,” Wilson said. “We’re up for that game, we’re up for every game at this point with the hole we’ve dug ourselves. Us being young, we’ve got a lot of energy and we’re ready to play.”
Missing two of their most talented players, Thursday’s matchup is an opportunity for the younger Huskies to earn the biggest win of their careers by knocking off a top-10 team. Tipoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. at the XL Center.
Andrew Morrison is the associate sports editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. He tweets at @asmor24