Since the beginning of the season, from the very first practice, the UConn men have been carrying around a photo of The American conference championship trophy. Serving as a constant reminder of what their goals were, it went everywhere with the team from film sessions, to practice, to team meals. A little worse for wear these days, it’s now a symbol of the opportunity that lies directly in front of them.
“It’s here now. It’s time,” Christian Vital said after practice on Wednesday. “Simple as that.”
Vital has dreamt of reaching the big dance for his entire collegiate career. Instead he’s been a part of three-straight losing seasons, the most recent of which ended in a 39-point smackdown by Houston in the second round. While the NCAA tournament — which will not have fans in attendance due to the rising threat of the coronavirus — remains Vital’s goal as long as he has NCAA eligibility, his eyes aren’t wandering beyond Thursday’s game.
“We know what this week means for us, for our season, to get to where we wanna get to, but also we just gotta keep taking it one game at a time,” Vital said. “When you look too far ahead, you miss out on what’s in front of you.”
What’s in front of the Huskies (19-12, 10-8 The American) is a second matchup with the Tulane Green Wave in five days. UConn beat Tulane (12-18, 4-14 The American) twice this season, and the most recent victory, a four-point win on Sunday, secured the No. 5 seed in the tournament for the Huskies.
UConn led from the 15:25 mark in the first, but did not maintain a steady control. While the Huskies, who had more second chance points, fast break points, points in the paint and rebounds, out-played the Green Wave, the score remained close throughout. Tulane captured the lead first and four other times, the last coming at the half. UConn held two separate leads of nine points.
“It’s more familiarity,” head coach Dan Hurley said on playing Tulane again. “There’s little wrinkles and different things you can do, but probably just becomes a lot more of a player’s game now. These guys are just so familiar with individual tendencies, how we both try to play, I just know from our end, that we’ve got to guard a whole lot better. We’ve to guard the ball a whole lot better. If we defend like we did the other day there, the lack of urgency that we had, the lack of being able to chest-to-chest, on-the-ball defense, we won’t be in Dallas very long.”
As a team, Tulane shot 48.2% against UConn and had four players reach double figures in scoring. Christian Thompson scored 21 on 8-of-10 shooting and four rebounds. Teshaun Hightower had 14 points himself, though a bit less efficient, and also grabbed four rebounds in the losing effort.
“We have to be able to guard the ball one-on-one,” James Bouknight said. “That’s really what it is, what it’s going to come down to. Being able to guard your man and win your battles.”
Vital and Bouknight will remain the focal points of the Huskies’ offense and were awarded for their regular season efforts. Vital was named to the All-Conference First Team while Bouknight was voted to the Third Team and was a unanimous selection for the AAC All-Freshman team.
“I’m happy for him, I’m proud of him, but we know we have a lot more work to do,” Vital said on the two being honored.
Vital leads the team in both points (16.4) and rebounds (6.3) and is ranked in the nation’s top 10 in free throw percentage (.899) and steals per game (2.5). Bouknight is second in scoring (13.0) and is averaging north of 15 points per conference game. Over his last 10 games, in which UConn has won eight, the freshman is averaging 17.8 points and 5.6 rebounds.The Huskies enter the tournament winners of five straight and have not lost back-to-back games since their four-game losing streak at the end of January.
“Everyone knows, this league, anyone can beat anyone on any given day,” Vital said. “For us, to know that we beat Cincinnati, Houston, Tulsa, that’s a little confidence booster, but everyone’s 0-0. In a way it’s a confidence booster, in a way it doesn’t mean anything to be honest with you. It’s conference tournament time, one game and you’re done, so everything’s gotta get put on the line.”
As the stakes rise, so does the intensity. For guys like Brendan Adams and Isaiah Whaley, who have had major roles on the team this season compared to last, tournament time can be a whole new experience. The same can be said for the two starting freshman guards. While practices have been toned down a tad to keep a not-so-deep lineup healthy, Hurley says it’s been key to remind them of what’s coming.
“Just stick to the routine,” Hurley said. “For the guys who haven’t played in a postseason or a conference tournament game or guys who haven’t had a prominent role on the team as some of the juniors or Brendan, just reminding them that this goes up a notch, notch and a half in terms of the intensity. You feel like you’re playing for your life. We gotta raise our level.”
The Huskies and Green Wave tip off at 3 p.m. today from Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas. If they survive Thursday’s game, they’ll match up with No. 4 Wichita State and possibly the Cincinnati Bearcats in the conference semifinals. A rematch with Houston would have to wait until Sunday’s championship, but Hurley isn’t thinking about that, even with the battered photo of the trophy hanging around.
“If you wanna take a sniff of anything here, you gotta take care of Thursday,” Hurley said.