MBB: Huskies make official return to Big East against No. 9 Creighton

In this March 2020 file photo, the UConn men’s basketball team celebrated senior night. After their second midseason pause due to COVID-19, the Huskies will be facing up against the Creighton Bluejays. Photo by Eric Wang/The Daily Campus.

The UConn men’s basketball team is coming off its second COVID-19 pause since the beginning of November and this time, it doesn’t get to ease itself back in with a matchup against Central Connecticut State.

No, this time, the Huskies’ first opponent is the Creighton Bluejays, the No. 9 team in the country on the most recent AP poll.

It seems appropriate in 2020 that UConn’s highly anticipated “return” to the Big East comes against a team they’ve never faced before in their history. Creighton is one of the newer Big East teams that wasn’t in the conference when UConn was there before. Head coach Dan Hurley knows Creighton (5-2, 1-1 Big East) will be UConn’s (3-0) toughest test so far, and the fact it’s coming right off another COVID-19 pause makes it even harder.

“I’m incredibly nervous and anxious about what we’re gonna look like tomorrow against one of the best teams in the country after what’s gone on for the last 40 days,” Hurley said in a Zoom call on Saturday. “That being said, I also have a tremendous appreciation that we get a chance to get out and play right now.”

The Huskies haven’t played since their 61-58 win over USC at Mohegan Sun back on Dec. 3. Since then, they’ve had games against NC State, St. John’s, Georgetown and Providence either canceled or postponed. They returned to practice on Sunday, Dec. 13, but Hurley said it’s been difficult to work back up to game speed.

“You find yourself really the first couple of days trying to just focus on conditioning and giving these guys a chance to play off some of the rust and get back in some semblance of shape,” Hurley said.

Meanwhile, the Bluejays have been active recently, playing two Big East games this week. On Monday, they lost to Marquette 89-84 in their conference opener after shooting a terrible 14-for-25 from the free-throw line. But they came right back with a convincing 94-76 win over St. John’s on Thursday. Hurley said he puts a lot more stock in the win over St. John’s than in the loss against Marquette because he knows how good Creighton can be.

“I look at them as a team that’s got championship aspirations in the Big East as well as a team that has Final Four potential or Elite Eight potential,” Hurley said. “They’ve got one of the best offensive attacks in the country and it’s a veteran group that’s played together and had a lot of success together.”

“They’ve got one of the best offensive attacks in the country and it’s a veteran group that’s played together and had a lot of success together.”

Head coach Dan Hurley

Among Creighton’s top players is Marcus Zegarowski, the preseason Big East Player of the Year who Hurley called a “maestro” at the point guard position. He’s averaging 14.7 points and 5.7 assists through his team’s first seven games. There’s also Denzel Mahoney and Mitch Ballock, who are averaging 16.2 and 10.4 points per game, respectively, with very efficient 3-point shooting.

Creighton is the best 3-point shooting team in the conference, hitting 39.8% of their shots from behind the arc, and they shoot threes at a very high volume, averaging over 27 3-pointers taken per game. The Bluejays are also a very balanced team, with all five starters averaging double-digit points. Out of those five, four of them are great 3-point shooters, so it could be a matchup nightmare for some of UConn’s bigger players.

Hurley said everyone will be available to play except for Akok Akok, who is still coming back from his Achilles tear, and potentially Tyler Polley, who has what Hurley described as “some other issue” besides his knee that will be disclosed on game day.

The Huskies will look to get big performances from James Bouknight, who is leading the team with 18.7 points, as well as R.J. Cole, the team’s main facilitator on offense, and Isaiah Whaley, the team’s leading rebounder and top defender. But even if they get all that, it still may not be enough to knock off one of the top teams in the Big East if the Bluejays play up to their potential.

“They have maybe the best point guard in the country in Zegarowski, maybe the best shooter in the country in Ballock and then some outstanding wings,” Hurley said. “They’re loaded.”

Looking ahead, UConn’s next game at DePaul on Dec. 23 has already been postponed due to the Blue Demons still being within 14 days of a positive COVID-19 test. Hurley said they are looking to play another game in its place, but he said it’s more likely that game will be played on Dec. 27 than on the 23rd. He also said it will definitely be a conference game because “the juice isn’t worth the squeeze” of playing non-conference games at this point.

Sunday’s game against Creighton will tip off at noon at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, Conn. and it will be broadcast on FS1.

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