The “excruciating” losses have piled up for the UConn men this season, totaling four of their seven losses. The most recent came at the then-ranked No. 14 Villanova Wildcats, where the Huskies could not close out the game down the stretch.
Thursday night’s matchup with the No. 25 Houston Cougars, who the Huskies have lost three straight games to, has a chance to be number five.
“We’re going to show up the way we showed up today, the way we showed up against Tulane, every night for the rest of the season,” head coach Dan Hurley said following the double-overtime loss to Wichita State.
“Year two of a rebuild, which is what this is, you’re either winning games or losing in excruciating fashion,” he added.
The Huskies (10-7, 1-3 The American) suffered back-to-back losses of that degree in a one-week span, both of which were against nationally-ranked opponents. UConn has not beaten a ranked foe on the road in six years and will play three-consecutive of such opponents for the first time since the 2014 NCAA Tournament.
This is incredible, but at quick glance, this is the first time this has happened to UConn in the regular season since 1999, when it faced No. 9 St. John's, No. 16 Syracuse and No. 4 Stanford consecutively. https://t.co/kHwTwwQZuJ
— David Borges (@DaveBorges) January 20, 2020
Houston (14-4, 4-1 The American) sits atop the conference, while the Huskies trail quite a bit with only USF beneath them. Last time out, Houston dethroned Wichita State by 11 points to claim first in The American.
The Cougars’ guard combination of sophomore Quentin Grimes (12.8 ppg) and freshman Caleb Mills (12.6) collaborate for a third of Houston’s 75 nightly point total. Mills, who has started less than half of the time, is outshooting his team — and UConn’s Christian Vital — from beyond the arc with a 35.4 percentage.
Following the loss to the Shockers, Hurley said the downtime between games would be good for Akok Akok to reenergize. The redshirt freshman has started every game for the Huskies and is playing the third-most minutes (28.7) on the team, trailing only Vital (29.8) and Alterique Gilbert (29.2). Akok ranks 14th in the nation with 2.88 blocks per game, and the Huskies are going to need all of his 6-foot-9 frame against Houston’s 6-foot-10 Chris Harris Jr.
Scroll down the list of the nation’s leading blockers and you’ll find Harris Jr. just a few rows down from Akok at No. 37 (2.18). The redshirt senior and Houston native will be a force to be reckoned with, but UConn will need to slow down Nate Hinton on the glass. Hinton, a sophomore, is bringing down 9.7 rebounds a game, three more than the Huskies’ leading rebounders Vital and Josh Carlton (both at 6.8).
Commanding the glass will play a crucial role Thursday night as the Cougars are the 22nd best rebounding team in the country with a team total of 772, good enough for 42.9 rebounds per contest. UConn trails Houston by exactly 111 boards and is allowing opponents to rebound at a 35.7 per game clip. Carlton, Akok and the big men (and Vital) will have their boxing out abilities put to the test in a big time conference matchup.
Carlton remains to be a big part of what the Huskies want to do on offense, and he looked more like himself last time out. Against Villanova, Carlton was one of three double-digit scorers with 12 points on 6-of-9 shooting. The big man also displayed his shot-blocking ability with two of the team’s six swats.
Since Tyler Polley went down for the season with a torn ACL, James Bouknight has taken over the starting spot. Even though he is a freshman, he will be looked on to do more than his 1-for-5 shooting performance in 26 minutes against the Wildcats. He fared better in his first start — 16 points on 50% shooting — as Hurley looks to “unleash” the young guard.
Tip-off is set for 9 p.m. at Fertitta Arena in Houston and will be televised on ESPNU.