Playing at the XL Center for the final time with the American Athletic Conference logo painted on the floor, the UConn men’s basketball team takes on UCF for the first and only time this season on Wednesday.
It’s been over a year since the Huskies (15-12, 6-8 The American) and Knights (14-12, 5-9) last squared off, a six-point UConn defeat in Orlando last January. Then-senior Jalen Adams had 22 points in the second half alone as UConn climbed back from a 12-point halftime deficit but couldn’t complete the comeback.
Although UConn leads the all-time series 10-4, UCF has owned the matchup as of late, having won each of the last three meetings. The Knights have won three of their last five but are still reeling from a stunning 75-74 loss to last-place Tulane at home on Saturday.
Redshirt junior forward Collin Smith is the only Knight in double-figure scoring this season, but four other players average seven points or more per game. UCF is middle of the pack in basically every offensive metric this season, but have been quite vulnerable on the defensive glass at times this season, averaging the second-worst rebound margin (-.8) in the conference.
As UCF comes off an embarrassing loss, UConn enters on the heels of a nice bounce-back victory over USF on Sunday. Senior Christian Vital had a game-high 24 points and became The American’s all-time leader in 3-pointers made.
“It just shows the nights I was in Gampel and Werth shooting when no one was there. So to know the work is paying off, I know I got a lot more work to do, but that’s definitely a nice accomplishment,” Vital said after the win. “That’s a nice accomplishment, but I’d rather win more games.”
Since Akok Akok went down for the season with an Achilles rupture, head coach Dan Hurley has rolled out the same starting lineup in both games, with junior Isaiah Whaley taking Akok’s place alongside Jalen Gaffney, James Bouknight, Josh Carlton and Vital. But with Bouknight and Carlton both in foul trouble on Sunday, Brendan Adams and Alterique Gilbert each were impressive in starter-like minutes, leaving the door open for a change to the starting five on Wednesday.
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Whaley has been fantastic since Akok’s injury, averaging 10.3 points, 8.7 rebounds and, most impressively, four blocks over the last three games.
“He deserves everything he’s getting right now,” Vital said about Whaley on Sunday. “He’s been big time. We’re not in these games without him.”
For all the talk in recent years about playing half the home games in Hartford hurting the Huskies, the XL Center has been kind to UConn in their AAC farewell season. UConn is 6-2 at XL so far, and both of those losses came in overtime to strong conference opponents in Tulsa and Wichita State.
The final tipoff in Hartford this season is set for 7 p.m. on Wednesday. If you can’t make it to XL, the game will be televised on ESPN2.