After destroying Drexel Tuesday, the hard part now begins for UConn
HARTFORD – Both halves of UConn’s 97-65 demolition of Drexel Tuesday at the XL Center featured highlight reel worthy plays.
In the first, Sidney Wilson blocked a shot on one end, then threw down a powerful two-handed put-back dunk seconds later, much to the delight of the 6,951 in attendance. One half later, Tarin Smith, who scored 20 points on 7-of-7 shooting, dunked with his left hand in the face of the defender, causing a near-riot of a celebration on the Huskies’ bench.
While this was a game to enjoy for UConn, it also highlighted the big picture: the hard part of the season now begins. It starts Saturday at Madison Square Garden against defending national champion Villanova, followed by conference play. UConn’s fan base has often dismissed the AAC, but the fact remains that the Huskies have not won a regular season league title since the conference began in 2013-14. The conference games also feature long, exhausting road trips, something UConn did not have to deal with in the Big East.
Unlike Tuesday, it won’t be easy. But the Huskies are excited about the challenge.
“It’s going to mean everything to us,” said Christian Vital, who scored 17 points Tuesday and was a team-high plus-28. “We definitely have (the Villanova game) circled and now that Saturday’s coming up, we have to be prepared as much as possible.”
After an ugly offensive showing in a win over Manhattan on Saturday, the Huskies came back in a big way, shooting 60 percent overall and 59 percent (10-of-17) on threes. Sustainable? No. However, it’s a step in the direction coach Dan Hurley’s leading.
“Obviously, I’m much happier with today’s performance after Saturday night,” Hurley said. “I thought our guys responded well. The older players, the leaders, prepared the right way, coming off the dreary performance versus Manhattan. We just looked sharp. We looked determined.”
“It felt like we lost in that locker room after (the Manhattan game),” noted Vital. “We won, I have to remind myself of that. We wanted to play a cleaner game today and we did that.”
Jalen Adams, one of the older players and leaders Hurley referenced, bounced back from his worst game in two seasons (2 points) with 20 points (8-of-12) despite battling early foul trouble. Hurley, very critical of Adams following the Manhattan game, was proud of Adams’ response.
“I have sky-high expectations for Jalen Adams and so does he,” Hurley said. “He handled it the right way, in terms of owning everything. He was super-attentive and super-serious in terms of his preparation for this one.”
Traditionally, UConn has looked ahead to this time of year. After the past two seasons, though, the mid-major games at home could not be overlooked. Too much went wrong in those contests to consider that (you know the list of slip-ups by now). At 9-3, Hurley’s team has won all of the games they’ve been favorited in, and Manhattan aside, they have dominated them. Step One taken.
Villanova comes off a tough loss at Kansas, which arguably has the best home court advantage in the country. Despite losing talent to the NBA after last season, the Wildcats still have a solid team and beating them will be a big obstacle for UConn.
Hurley is focused on an old school college basketball cliché: playing hard for a full 40 minutes.
“Super-talented teams can pick their spots and play in spurts,” he said. “For us to beat teams like Villanova, or the better teams in our league and the middle teams in our league, we’re going to have to play a full 40. It shouldn’t be a hard concept. That has to be our mindset going forward.”
UConn has proven already that it can take care of inferior opponents. A win Saturday would show its capable of doing more than just that.