On March 9, 2013, UConn and Providence played a game at Gampel Pavilion that UConn won 63-59 in overtime. The Huskies had a 20-10 record, but were ineligible for any postseason play due to low APR scores between 2007 and 2011. As a result, the season was over for the Huskies. So too was their time in the Big East.
At least for a while.
When UConn (8-4, 5-4 Big East) makes the trip to Providence’s Alumni Hall to play the Friars (9-10, 5-8 Big East) on Wednesday, it will be the first matchup between the longtime regional rivals since that day in Storrs. A lot has transpired since then — seven years in the American Athletic Conference for UConn, five straight NCAA Tournament appearances for Providence. But now, this game has a similar meaning to that one seven years ago: It’s a big matchup for two solid Big East teams.
“I think it’s going to be great for both programs,” head coach Dan Hurley said Tuesday. “It’s gonna be two or three times a year potentially with the Big East Tournament, hopefully both of us competing at the top. Obviously, both teams are kind of staggering into this one a little bit.”
Hurley is correct that neither team is coming into this game on a hot streak. UConn has lost three of its last four games, including most recently to Seton Hall on Saturday, 80-73. Providence has lost three straight to Georgetown, Seton Hall and most recently, St. John’s on Saturday, 92-81.
The Huskies could have some help coming with James Bouknight being a game-time decision for the game. The sophomore star has missed the last six games after an elbow injury that required surgery. The UConn offense has really struggled at times without Bouknight on the floor, although the defense has played well enough to allow them to split those games 3-3.
Interestingly enough, against Seton Hall, the Bouknight-less offense really seemed to thrive with big contributions from Jalen Gaffney and Adama Sanogo, but the defense wasn’t good enough to win the game. Hurley hinted that Gaffney may have played his way into the starting lineup after his 20-point performance, and he also said there could be a change at another position.
“It’s been two days of practice. Usually there’s a blue team and a gray team — blue team is the starters, gray team is the second unit. It’s been white or gray the last two days because I don’t feel like with the way we’ve performed that there was a starting unit going into this game,” Hurley said. “The guys who have fought the hardest that are gonna represent the standard of UConn the best will start [today].”
No matter who starts with him, if Bouknight is back, it would be huge for this team on both ends of the floor. He averaged over 20 points per game on 45% shooting through the team’s first six games, and he was the frontrunner for Big East Player of the Year at the time of his injury.
Whether Bouknight is back or not, the Huskies need to have a good game defensively against Providence, especially the two-headed monster of Nate Watson and David Duke. Both are playing like All-Conference players this season. Watson, the senior big man, is averaging 17.9 points and 6.8 rebounds per game and he has the most blocks on the team with 14. Meanwhile Duke, the junior do-it-all guard, is averaging 17.5 points, 6.0 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game while leading the Friars in steals with 21.
“[Watson is] as good of a frontcourt player, as good of a big guy as you’ll play against in terms of back to the basket,” Hurley said. “That guy is just a lot to deal with.”
“We got to keep [Duke] out of the paint and force him to become just a contested jump shooter,” Hurley added. “That’s your best bet, but it’s easier said than done. The kid is really, really talented.”
Aside from being a renewal to a classic rivalry between UConn and Providence — one UConn leads 38-27 all time — it’s also a renewal to the “rivalry” between Hurley and Ed Cooley. The two coaches competed against each other in the Providence-Rhode Island rivalry for the six years Hurley was at URI. But Hurley said he doesn’t see Cooley as a rival, rather just as a coach that he really respects.
“I like Ed,” Hurley said. “Ed’s one of the best coaches in college basketball … I just couldn’t have more respect for the job he does.”
This is one of the most important games of the season for the Huskies, as their recent skid has changed them from tournament locks to firmly on the bubble. This game is just as important for the Friars, who need to win to bring themselves back into the bubble conversation.
The game has an earlier start time than normal for a weeknight game, tipping off at 4 p.m. on FS1. It should be a really good one.