Golden Opportunity for UConn

STORRS, Conn. – With March right around the corner, college basketball teams that still have NCAA Tournament aspirations find themselves in various degrees of need.

Take Connecticut, for example. The Huskies have lost six of their last eight games. Based on that information alone, it might appear that UConn (16-9, 6-7 Big East) is desperate heading into Saturday's game against No. 12 Marquette (21-5, 10-3) at the XL Center.

That's not the situation at all.

What the Huskies have Saturday is an opportunity. Associate head coach George Blaney, subbing for coach Jim Calhoun for a fifth consecutive game, seems to have that in perspective.

"I don't know that we need any padding; we need wins," Blaney said Friday after practice at Gampel Pavilion. "We've got five games left and we need to win as many of those as we can get. Obviously, beating Marquette would be another really, really good win – and somewhat of a signature win.

"I think we have the resume. We just need more wins, that's all."

Blaney speaks like a veteran bracketologist. UConn's resume is good. In the latest NCAA rankings, updated on Monday, the Huskies have an RPI of 21. Road losses to Louisville and Syracuse last week didn't hurt that RPI. UConn is No. 1 in the nation in strength of schedule. The Huskies are 5-5 against teams 1 through 50 in the RPI, with victories over Florida State, Seton Hall, Harvard, Notre Dame and West Virginia.

Marquette's RPI ranking this week is 12. A victory over the Golden Eagles would give UConn its highest ranked victory of the season. Currently, UConn has losses to Syracuse (RPI No. 1), Georgetown (No. 13) and Louisville (No. 20). Florida State (No. 28) is UConn's best victory – based on RPI.

After blowout losses to Louisville and Syracuse on the road last week, UConn can show the NCAA selection committee that it can take care of business. The Huskies handled unranked DePaul 80-54 at Gampel Pavilion Wednesday. Backing that up with a victory over Marquette in Hartford would give the Huskies momentum heading into the final four games of the regular season – at Villanova, home to Syracuse, at Providence and home to Pittsburgh.

UConn hasn't won back-to-back games since Jan. 9 and Jan. 14 against West Virginia and at Notre Dame. And a win Saturday would lift the Huskies back to .500 in the Big East as the conference tournament nears.

"Marquette is a good team that plays hard," forward Alex Oriakhi said. "It will be a test for us, number one. But we definitely need wins. I think it would be great to start with Marquette. It's going to be a challenge.

"This is going to be one of the hardest teams we play in terms of the effort they give. We can match their effort and it would be a signature win for us."

Since losing back-to-back games at Georgetown and Syracuse, the Golden Eagles have won nine of 10. Marquette doesn't have an active player on the roster taller than 6-7.

"All I know is [Darius] Johnson-Odom and [Jae] Crowder are two pretty good players," Blaney said. "I've never thought size is all that necessary. I think good players are necessary. They have athletes, they have strength, they have quickness and they play full out."

Marquette coach Buzz Williams certainly isn't taking UConn lightly. And he knows the Huskies will remember last year's overtime loss to Marquette in Hartford.

"I think UConn arguably has the most talent of any team in the league," Williams said. "They played really well [against DePaul]. I know they'll be excited for us to be there because of our game from last year. I admire how they go about things and I think they're really, really good."


No. 12 Marquette (21-5, 10-3 Big East) at UConn (16-9, 6-7 Big East)

Date: Feb. 18, 2012

Time: Noon

Site: XL Center, Hartford, Conn.

TV: ESPN (Dave Pasch, Doris Burke)

Radio: UConn Radio Network/WTIC-AM 1080 (Joe D'Ambrosio, Wayne Norman)

Series: Marquette leads, 4-3

Notes: Prior to Marquette joining the Big East before the 2005-06 season, these teams had never met. . . . The visiting team has won the last four games in this series. . . . Last season, UConn won 76-68 in Milwaukee and Marquette won 74-67 in overtime in Hartford. . . . Marquette is 3-1 on the road against UConn and 2-0 at the XL Center.

Last meeting: Marquette 74, UConn 67 (OT) (Feb. 24, 2011)

UConn outscored Marquette 36-25 in the second half to force overtime but the Golden Eagles dominated the extra period 15-8. Darius Johnson-Odom led Marquette with 17. Kemba Walker led all scorers with 27 pints and Alex Oriakhi had 12 points along with 15 rebounds.


G 5 Junior Cadougan Jr. 6-1 205 6.6 ppg

G 1 Darius Johnson-Odom Sr. 6-2 215 18.4 ppg

G 2 Vander Blue So. 6-4 200 8.7 ppg

F 32 Jae Crowder Sr. 6-6 235 16.2 ppg

F 0 Jamil Wilson So. 6-7 220 6.8 ppg


G 13 Shabazz Napier So. 6-1 171 13.0 ppg

G 3 Jeremy Lamb So. 6-5 180 17.2 ppg

G 11 Ryan Boatright Fr. 6-0 160 10.4 ppg

C 12 Andre Drummond Fr. 6-10 270 10.1 ppg

F 34 Alex Oriakhi Jr. 6-9 240 6.7 ppg


CROWDER DOES IT ALL: Jae Crowder of Marquette is one of just four players in the Big East ranked among the top 15 in six different categories. Through Feb. 15, he is 10th in scoring, 10th in rebounding, 12th in field goal percentage, second in steals, 14th in three-pointers per game, and sixth in defensive rebounds per game. He has four double-doubles since Jan. 1. "He's an all-around player," Blaney said. "He does everything. He can play on the perimeter or he can play in the post. He can run. He's a very good passer. I watched one game where he stole the ball seven times. He's a very good rebounder. He defends big guys and he defends little guys. There isn't anything he doesn't do. It's one of those weird matchups."

RALLY EAGLES: Marquette might be the Big East's comeback kids. In five Big East games this season, The Golden Eagles have rallied from big deficits and gone on to win. Marquette trailed Louisville 18-2, Villanova 28-10, Seton Hall 28-17, DePaul 41-29 and Cincinnati 16-4 – and won every game.

INJURY WATCH: Injuries have forced Marquette's two biggest players, Chris Otule and Davante Gardner, out of action. Meanwhile, UConn's injury situation is much improved. Blaney said Andre Drummond (ankle sprain) and Jeremy Lamb (toe sprain) practiced both days since the DePaul game and both appear to be greatly improved. Roscoe Smith (Achilles) has practiced the past two days.

ALEX THE GREAT:Blaney is very pleased with the effort and exuberance from junior Alex Oriakhi. He said Oriaki is showing leadership with encouragement and by helping others to improve. It all started two weeks ago when Oriakhi, Napier and Lamb help a players-only meeting. Oriakhi talked about missing the NCAA tournament his freshman year and how he didn't want that feeling again. Said Blaney: "I think since that time he has fully, fully committed to something they call "all in.' He's been great. I loved the way he played against DePaul with 14 [points] and 10 [rebounds]."

QUOTE OF THE DAY: "We don't talk about the byes or the double-byes [in the Big East tournament.] After what happened to the Packers, in Wisconsin, that's not something you talk about in this state. So we don't talk about that." – Marquette coach Buzz Williams.

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