UConn men's basketball believes it can win AAC Tournament

Published on Wednesday, 7 March 2018 15:40
Written by Neil Ostrout

Journal Inquirer

Even if you translate it into other languages, it remains possible to spell March without U-C-o-n-n.

Just don’t tell that to the current men’s basketball players who wear those letters across their chests. They believe in themselves and, to a degree, the mythical nature of their program’s history.

So as the Huskies headed to Florida for this week’s American Athletic Conference Tournament, they did so with a plan of victory. The four-time national champions haven’t given up on the idea of advancing to this year’s NCAA Tournament.

“Anything can happen. We kind of have a record of showing that,” UConn guard Jalen Adams said, “with us being UConn and what happened two years ago in the same gym.”

Yes, UConn, which will face SMU today (noon, ESPNU) in the first game of the American tournament at Orlando’s Amway Center, has made some noise in central Florida before during this month. Adams’ 75-foot heave against Cincinnati and the Huskies’ ensuing four-overtime victory, jump-started their run to the 2016 AAC crown.

But this group of Huskies is starting from further behind the 8-ball.

UConn (14-17), the No. 8 seed, seemingly doesn’t have much of a chance to win the tournament. But even the coaching staff is pointing to history as a blueprint for success this week.

“We always had a nice run in our tournament,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said, recalling his days as a player for Jim Calhoun and later an assistant under the Hall of Famer.

The Huskies were planning to leave for Orlando on a charter flight today at noon, hoping to dodge the brunt of the snow falling around Bradley International Airport and much of the Northeast.

The winner of the UConn-SMU game will advance to Friday’s quarterfinals, where it will face top-seeded Cincinnati.

If the Huskies are to make some kind of run, they know they’ll have to get contributions from many positions. Still, it’s Adams’ team and he is often the best barometer of their overall play.

The good news for UConn is that Adams is riding a hot streak.

“Jalen is playing out of his mind,” is how Ollie phrased it Monday.

Even the opposition is giving a modicum of lip service to UConn’s plan.

“They’re capable of beating anyone on a given night,” SMU coach Tim Jankovic said.

UConn has won 10 games in the four years the AAC tourney has been played, more than any other team. The Huskies won the 2016 event and were runners-up in 2014 and 2015.

UConn won the only meeting between the teams during the regular season, a 63-52 triumph in Storrs in which the Mustangs connected on only 28 percent of their shots. Christian Vital had a game-high 20 points in the UConn win, while UConn teammate Josh Carlton had a career-best 12 rebounds.

Shake Milton, the Mustangs’ best player, played only one game after that one before breaking a bone in his hand. Milton could return for Thursday’s game, however, which would obviously make a big impact.

SMU (16-15) has played the last nine games with just seven scholarship players, losing eight of those games.

Barring a miracle run through this event, UConn will suffer its second consecutive losing season. But the Huskies have at least finished strong.

UConn beat Temple in its home finale and played well for the majority of what turned into an 81-71 loss to Houston Sunday.

“We have a new season coming up,” Ollie said. “The Temple game and the (Houston) game, we did some good things. Hopefully we can continue to do those good things.”

Although UConn has yet to beat any of the top teams in the league this season, the Huskies remain confident that it’s possible this week. They’re even taking some pride in a narrow miss against 25th-ranked Houston.

“Yeah, definitely. We can use the momentum even though we lost. We were right there in the game,” UConn forward Terry Larrier said. “They’re one of the best teams in the conference. They got Cincy, they beat Wichita. We can compete them, we can compete with the other guys as well. We just have to go down there, take it a game at a time and just win.”

Posted in New Britain Herald, UConn on Wednesday, 7 March 2018 15:40. Updated: Wednesday, 7 March 2018 16:25.