The Huskies have lost seven of their last nine games and only four games remain before the Big East Conference tournament in New York. The UConn players have talked and talked about the need to win games. They've held team meetings. Ray Allen drove over from Boston and gave a pep talk. Associate head coach George Blaney even did some yelling and stomping. Shabazz Napier has called out his teammates.
It's time to back up all the words with actions. Team Distraction needs to win three of its last four games just to finish 9-9 in conference play. The challenge begins Monday night in Philadelphia, when UConn (16-10, 6-8 Big East) plays a Villanova (11-15, 4-10) team that has been even more disappointing than the Huskies.
The Wildcats have lost five of their last six, including a 74-70 overtime loss to Notre Dame Saturday. Their Big East victories have come against Providence, St. John's, Seton Hall and DePaul – all teams in the bottom half of the conference. And the Jay Wright's team will be without injured guards Maalik Wayns and James Bell, who combined average more than 25 points a game.
It's hard to believe the two programs in this tremendous rivalry enter a late season game with 25 losses and only 10 Big East victories combined.
"It's a dangerous game," Blaney said. "Going to Philadelphia, you'd like to be playing them coming off win."
Will the Huskies come out with the energy they demonstrated in wins over Seton Hall and DePaul? Or will they fail to handle adversity, lose heart and quit the way they did against Louisville and Marquette?
"Guys miss shots and their head is down; I just think we really don't have time for that," junior forward Alex Oriakhi said. "If you miss a shot, so what? It's basketball. We've got to keep on playing. I definitely understand where they're coming from. It can be frustrating to miss a shot. But we do have to play through everything."
That's a message the coaching staff has been stressing all season, yet the Huskies have not played through full possessions, let alone halves or full games. Leadership is an intangible. Playing hard and playing with a sense of urgency hasn't been part of this team's makeup from the beginning and it may be too late to flip the switch to rediscover the things that defined UConn basketball.
"We preach it all the time," Blaney said. "We do it at certain times, we do it for periods of times in games. We're still not doing it for entire games."
When are the Huskies going to get the message? They said they had it all figured out before the Marquette game. But they didn't.
"It looked like we gave up at the end," Napier said. "It's tough to say because we're a great team and for those words to be coming out of my mouth is just horrendous. It's something you don't want to happen."
Said Blaney: "That's the problem with [the Big East], You don't have nights off. You can't 'not be ready,' you can't 'not play a full game,' you can't 'not play full possessions.' … You've got to finish, and we've got Villanova Monday night and we've got our hands full right there."
UConn (16-10, 6-8 Big East) at Villanova (11-15, 4-10)
Date: Feb. 20, 2012
Time: 7 p.m.
Site: Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia, Pa.
TV: ESPN (Sean McDonough, Bill Raftery, Jay Bilas)
Radio: UConn Radio Network/WTIC-AM 1080 (Joe D'Ambrosio, Wayne Norman)
Series: Villanova leads, 32-29
Notes: This will be the 58th meeting in Big East play and Villanova lead 30-27. . . UConn has won the last three meetings. . . . UConn is 11-19 at Villanova, 5-4 at the Wells Fargo Center, formerly known as the Wachovia Center. . . . Villanova coach Jay Wright is 4-11 against UConn.
Last meeting: UConn 61-59 (Jan. 17, 2011)
Kemba Walker scored 24 and Jeremy Lamb and Alex Oriakhi each had 14 as UConn rallied from a 22-21 halftime deficit to win at Gampel Pavilion. Walker's runner in the final seconds broke a 59-59 tie.
VILLANOVA PROBABLE STARTERS
G 3 Ty Johnson Fr. 6-3 185 2.9 ppg
G 23 Dominic Cheek Jr. 6-6 185 12.4 ppg
C 25 Maurice Sutton Jr. 6-11 225 2.8 ppg
F 22 Jay Vaughn Pinkston Fr. 6-7 260 10.2 ppg
F 13 Mouphtaou Yarou Jr. 6-10 250 10.8 ppg
UCONN PROBABLE STARTERS
G 13 Shabazz Napier So. 6-1 171 13.0 ppg
G 3 Jeremy Lamb So. 6-5 180 17.3 ppg
G 11 Ryan Boatright Fr. 6-0 160 10.4 ppg
C 12 Andre Drummond Fr. 6-10 270 10.0 ppg
F 34 Alex Oriakhi Jr. 6-9 240 6.8 ppg
WILDCATS HURTING: Wayns, averaging 17.8 points for Villanova, missed his second straight game Saturday against Notre Dame. He suffered a sprained MCL in his left knee against Providence on Feb. 7. Bell sprained his left ankle in the second half of a loss to South Florida and has been ruled out for Monday's game as well. Pinkston, who sat out last season after a violation of the student code of conduct, averaged 5.9 points and 3.5 rebounds the first 13 games of the season. But since Jan. 1, he has averaged 13.8 points and 6.8 rebounds."Pinkston is becoming a real go-to guy for them," Blaney said. "They're young, which is probably why they haven't won as much as they normally do. They play terrific defense, they change defenses on you a lot. They're a little bit like Marquette; they attack you a lot of different ways."
NAPIER PART II: It will interesting to see how the Huskies react to the postgame comments made by Napier Saturday. He questioned the heart of most of the UConn players. He called Ryan Boatright's technical foul "immature." And Napier pointed a finger at sophomore forward Tyler Olander. "He could be really good for the team," Napier said of Olander. "He can knock the mid-range shot down. I tell him if you do the things you do in practice you'll get a great player. … Some games he plays timid. We don't understand why he'd throw a bounce pass three feet from a teammate. We'd rather him shoot." Napier also talked about missing coach Jim Calhoun, who is expected to make a decision some time this week regarding his back problem and whether he can return to coaching this season. "He's the guy who will get in people rather than me," Napier said. "I'd rather him do it, because he's more severe. I tell the guys, 'When I'm yelling at you, I'm [only] yelling at you.' Coach can do two things. Get in you or sit you in the bench.'
DECISION 2013: The NCAA's Committee on Academic Performance has a scheduled meeting Monday and is expected to discuss data collection procedures for the Academic Progress Rating. UConn's eligibility for the 2013 NCAA Tournament could be determined in that discussion. More than likely, UConn won't know for sure until April. Regardless it adds a little tension and another sidebar to Team Distraction heading into the Villanova game.
STAT OF THE DAY: UConn finished 15-3 in the Big East in 2008-09. Since that time, the Huskies are 22-28 in conference games.
QUOTE OF THE DAY: "I'm proud of the effort. I think we're getting better defensively. I don't want to be negative. I'm optimistic about this team, about the future of our program." – Villanova coach Jay Wright after his team's overtime loss to Notre Dame Saturday.