On Jan. 26 at the XL Center, the UConn men’s basketball team suffered yet another devastating defeat, forcing overtime in miraculous fashion only to lose to visiting Tulsa, 79-75. Now, just 11 days later, the Huskies get a chance at vengeance against the same Golden Hurricane squad — but this time in Tulsa’s house.
Tulsa (15-6, 7-1 The American) currently sits atop the American Athletic Conference standings, their lone conference defeat being a 31-point loss at Cincinnati on Jan. 8. Since then, the Golden Hurricane have won six straight, including an 80-40 embarrassment for then-No. 20 Memphis — the same Memphis team which just beat UConn last time out.
Thursday’s game is being billed by Tulsa as “Farewell Night,” as UConn (11-10, 2-6 The American) plays for the final time in the Reynolds Center as a member of the AAC. It’s a black-out and will likely be more of a loud, hostile environment than a pleasant good-bye to the departing Huskies. UConn is winless in five true road games this season and has never won on Tulsa’s home court.
While Tulsa continues its run of dominance as the surprise team in the conference, the Huskies are heading in the opposite direction. In the aftermath of a comfortable 15-point victory over Temple, it seemed things had finally turned a corner for UConn. But it was followed by another late collapse against Memphis, UConn’s seventh loss by seven points or less.
Senior Christian Vital leads the team in points (14.3) and rebounds (6.6) per game, while freshman James Bouknight is now the only other Husky in double-digit scoring. Redshirt junior Alterique Gilbert, who leads the team in assists per game (4.5) came off the bench against Memphis after missing the Temple game due to personal reasons. Head coach Dan Hurley said things are day-to-day with the starting lineup and minutes allotment at this point in the season.
Tulsa is one of the most efficient scoring teams in the conference, shooting 45% from the field as a team this season. Although the Hurricane are a middling defensive unit, they guard the 3-point line better than any team in the AAC, holding opponents to just 28% from beyond the arc.
Three players have averaged double figures for Tulsa, led by junior Brandon Rachal at 14.1 points per night. In the previous meeting with the Golden Hurricane, the Huskies had absolutely no answer for senior forward Martins Igbanu, who went off for 28 points on 14 shots along with 10 boards. UConn center Josh Carlton had a brutal afternoon, playing just 15 ineffective minutes before being benched for most of the second half.
“I can’t tolerate that,” Hurley said after that loss regarding Carlton’s uninspired play. “We got our ass kicked at center today, you can’t lose a battle at a position like that. Josh is better than this.”
Carlton may very well be what separates a win from a loss on Thursday. To say Carlton, the conference’s Most Improved Player from a year ago, has had a disappointing junior season is an understatement. With just 12 points in his last four games combined, Carlton’s production has fallen off, ceding increasing minutes to Isaiah Whaley and small-ball lineups. UConn can’t afford to surrender another huge game to Tulsa’s frontcourt, and Carlton is the biggest key to preventing that.
But the freshman trio of Bouknight, Akok Akok and Jalen Gaffney will be equally important. Akok had seven blocks in the first meeting with Tulsa, but has struggled on the offensive end as of late. Gaffney has shown flashes of brilliance, but has shot 2-of-16 in the last two games combined. Bouknight continues to be UConn’s best pure scorer, but still hasn’t looked as explosive or as consistent as he’s capable of being.
If everything comes together, UConn could pick up a huge win against the current kings of the conference. Tipoff is scheduled for 7 p.m., and the game can be viewed on ESPN2.