The Hoyas have lost seven in a row, including an 80-67 defeat in Hartford Jan. 16, and hold ninth place in the Big East standings ahead of only winless DePaul, who the Huskies visit next before getting into their toughest stretch of the conference schedule.
With an NCAA Tournament bid virtually locked up and a 2 1/2-game advantage in the conference, UConn head coach Dan Hurley is hyperfocused on weeding out as much vulnerability as he can before the win-or-go-home games approach.
“I think the whole point of this (last month of the season) is to have no holes in what we’re doing,” Hurley said Friday. “An elite level of efficiency on offense, a top elite-level defense, a team that’s gonna win the backboard, a team that’s gonna play harder and hopefully be better prepared than the opponent. Obviously things like transition offense, finding easier baskets in transition, the depth piece, playing deeper in terms of our own rotation.
“These are pressure-packed games, so the best way to win them is to have no weaknesses on your team.”
Georgetown exposed an area of weakness, which has since gotten a lot stronger, on the offensive glass when they visited Hartford last month. The rebounding effort, led by the sheer physicality of Fairfield transfer Supreme Cook, led to 20 second-chance points that prevented the Huskies from ever being able to pull away.
Cook had a 16-point, 10-rebound double-double at halftime and, scoring more than half of the team’s points through the first 20 minutes, drew a number of fouls on second-chance attempts and was awarded 11 chances at the free throw line. UConn was able to adjust and slow him down in the second half, eventually getting him to foul out with 18 points and 13 rebounds – nine of which came on the offensive glass.
“They really were physical in the paint, on the backboard. They’re a top-50 offensive rebounding team,” Hurley said. “In a game like this, that first contact on the box out, you’ve got to hit with some level of violence or some level of rage. … And you’ve got to be able to hold or improve your position and when you get forearms in your back or pushed in the back – it happens every night in this league – you’ve got to be able to still get that rebound or it’s got to be so clear that you’ve been pushed that the referee has to call it. That’s what makes the Big East unique.”
Donovan Clingan, the Huskies’ big man who missed the first matchup with his foot injury, is coming off the best rebounding game of his career against Butler on Tuesday night, when he pulled down a career-high 14 rebounds. Clingan has given the Huskies a boost in just about every way inside the paint since his return.
UConn will also have a healthier Alex Karaban, who Hurley said was “definitely moving better” since he sprained his ankle against Providence and returned at 70-80% to compete against Butler.
Karaban, who made clutch shots to beat Patrick Ewing’s Georgetown team on the road last year, had a monster game against Ed Cooley’s Hoyas in January, finishing with 26 points and five rebounds on 6 of 8 shooting from beyond the 3-point line. Cam Spencer, one of the best shooters in the nation let alone the conference, added five 3-pointers of his own on seven attempts and also tied the team-high with seven rebounds.
The Huskies held Jayden Epps, a top-five scorer in the Big East (18.3 points per game), to 5 of 19 shooting in their first matchup. Averaging almost 15 shot attempts per game, Epps is shooting 38.9% from the field and 31.9% from beyond the arc. Dontrez Styles, a 6-foot-6 guard and a North Carolina transfer is second on the Hoyas in rebounding (5.9 rebounds per game) and scoring (13.1), while shooting 43.2% from the field and a team-high 36% from beyond the arc (minimum 50 attempts).
UConn, No. 4 in the NCAAs NET rankings, has an 8-2 record in Quad 1 games – tied with Purdue for the best in the country – and hasn’t shown any slippage against lesser opponents, going 13-0 in those matchups. Since earning the No. 1 ranking, UConn has seemed to only get better.
“I just think in general we just have been able to put together a group of players and coaches that love the game, prioritize winning and we show up to work every day and do the right things,” Hurley said. “I think we’re just hypervigilant as coaches looking for any overconfidence or complacency and then just trying to nip that and address that in real time.”
What to know
Site: Capital One Arena, Washington, D.C.
Records: No. 1 UConn: 21-2 (11-1 Big East), Georgetown: 8-14 (1-10 Big East)
Series history: UConn leads, 37-36
Last meeting: Jan. 14, 2024 – UConn 80, Georgetown 67 at the XL Center
TV: FS1 – Matt Schumacker and Dickey Simpkins
Radio: UConn Sports Network on 97.9 WUCS – Mike Crispino, Wayne Norman