Men’s Basketball: Huskies ready for huge showdown with Seton Hall

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Connecticut guard James Bouknight (2) drives to the basket against Marquette guard Koby McEwen (25) in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021, in Storrs, Conn. (David Butler II/Pool Photo via AP)

Wednesday night’s contest at the Prudential Center in Newark may be listed as the second-to-last regular season game on the schedule for both the Seton Hall Pirates and the UConn Huskies, but this game is more important than just that. Maybe not quite playoff-level — “We do that next week,” head coach Dan Hurley said — but pretty close. 

In Joe Lunardi’s most recent bracketology update, both teams were in the field of 68 but both were on the bubble — UConn is one of the “Last Four Byes” and Seton Hall is in the “Last Four In” category. Both teams need this win to solidify their case to be in the NCAA Tournament, so tensions will be high on Wednesday between these two longtime rivals. 

“We know tomorrow is going to be a tough game [between] two desperate teams,” Hurley said Tuesday night. “It’s a huge game for them, and it’s a big game for us … I look at tomorrow for us more like an opportunity. It’s a big game, but it’s a big opportunity for us.” 

In the first meeting between these teams on Feb. 6 in Storrs, Seton Hall (13-10, 10-7 Big East) won 80-73, but it’s worth noting that UConn (12-6, 9-6 Big East) was still without its star James Bouknight at that point. 

That was actually one of the better games the Huskies played offensively in Bouknight’s absence. The 73 points were the most they scored without him besides the 80-72 win over Xavier that started this 4-1 stretch they’re on. Jalen Gaffney had his best game of the season against the Pirates, scoring a career-high 20 points. 

However, that game also marked the only time UConn’s defense has let up 80 points the entire season. Sandro Mamukelashvili and Myles Cale gave the Huskies fits in that game, combining for 42 points. The Pirates also scored 27 points at the free throw line and shot 50% from three. 

“They made some tough shots, and we made some mistakes that led to them making shots,” Hurley said. “They played great against us, and they jumped us. We need to be a lot better.” 

Seton Hall forward Tyrese Samuel (4) works against Butler forward Bryce Nze (10) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021, in Indianapolis. (Robert Scheer/The Indianapolis Star via AP)

The Pirates have been a hot-and-cold team all season. They have multiple four-game winning streaks, but they have also lost at least two straight games three different times. Right now, they are cold, losing their last two games to Georgetown and Butler, two teams with sub-.500 records. But they’ve had a week between games, so look for Kevin Willard to have his guys ready to go. 

The Huskies on the other hand have been playing their best basketball all season recently. Since the Xavier win on Feb. 13, their only loss has been to conference leader Villanova. They are coming off their most complete game this season, a 80-62 pounding of Marquette.  

But Seton Hall isn’t Marquette. The Huskies will have to be on their best game in order to unofficially punch their ticket to March Madness with a win. Bouknight as well as Big East Player of the Week R.J. Cole will need to step up with big performances like they have in the past two games. Look for someone else to emerge with a solid game as well — maybe Tyrese Martin, Isaiah Whaley or even Gaffney again. 

Both teams are in different places than they were a month ago when they met, and UConn is hoping that means there will be a different result. Wednesday’s game tips off at 6:30 p.m. on FS1, and any Big East basketball fan shouldn’t miss it. 

“There’s a lot of talent on the floor, I don’t think our league has gotten enough credit this year,” Hurley said. “I think two really good NCAA-caliber teams are gonna play tomorrow, so it should be a fun game.” 

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