Ladies and gentlemen, this is the big one.
We often complain about how there aren't enough good home games played at Gampel Pavilion, and that too often UConn wastes its unparalleled home court advantage by playing in the dungeon that is the XL Center, but every once in a while, usually about once per season, the school throws us a bone and schedules one of the biggest games of the year at Gampel.
Given the chance to really show the country what UConn is all about, the Husky faithful never disappoint, and the crowd atmosphere routinely blows away anything else you'll ever experience as a fan. The crowd is loud, engaged, relentless and intimidating, and it's not a coincidence that the Huskies hardly ever lose on their true home floor.
Tonight is going to be one of those games, as the Huskies welcome the defending national champion Louisville Cardinals to Gampel Pavilion for a game all of us have had circled on our calendars for a long time.
Louisville, of course, is coming off one of the most successful years athletically that any university could possibly hope to enjoy. Last year the football team beat an SEC team in a BCS bowl, the men's basketball team won the national championship, and just for good measure, the school outmaneuvered UConn for a spot in the ACC! (They also almost won the national championship in women's basketball too, but fortunately Breanna Stewart had something to say about that...)
Coming off that success, and given that this is the last time Louisville will come to UConn as a conference rival in the Big East/American, I know all of you want to smoke them as badly as I do. Fortunately, 2013 is over, and whatever demon Tom Jurich sold his soul to appears to be ready to collect its payment.
Now, I could point out that Louisville has become something of a refuge for coaches with similar sounding names who like to enjoy sexual trysts with women who aren't their wives (see Pitino, Rick and Petrino, Bobby), but that would be terribly beneath us and totally besides the point. Strictly from a basketball standpoint, Louisville just isn't quite the team it was a year ago when it cut down the nets in Atlanta.
The Cardinals come into tonight's game ranked No. 18 in the nation with a record of 15-3 (4-1 American) and losses to UNC, Kentucky and Memphis on their resume. Those three teams happen to be the only three good teams Louisville has played all year (and I use that term loosely with UNC), though the Cardinals should be given credit for their 71-63 win over SMU and their 91-52 annihalation of Houston over the past week.
UConn, by contrast, is hanging just outside the polls at 14-3 (2-2 American) but is coming off three straight solid wins, including Thursday's monster win over Memphis.
Louisville also no longer has Peyton Siva or Gorgui Dieng, who have both moved onto the NBA, nor do they have power forward Chane Behanan, who got himself kicked off the team due to a whole litany of off the court issues.
What Louisville does have is an experienced roster that still includes star point guard Russ Smith (18.1 points per game), as well as newcomer Chris Jones (11.3 PPG), forwards Luke Hancock (10.5 PPG), Montrezl Harrell (11.7 PPG and 8.2 rebounds per game) and Wayne Blackshear (9.9 PPG), and freshman center Mangok Mathiang (1.4 blocks per game).
Given its depth, Louisville matches up to UConn fairly well in that its one of the few teams in the country that actually has a backcourt that can match the skill and athleticism of Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, and it also has a well of forwards who could give the Huskies trouble if DeAndre Daniels doesn't bring his A game. As for Mangok Mathiang? Lets just say I can't wait to see him match up against Amida Brimah, that should be a good one.
For UConn, the key is going to be keeping up what they had going against Memphis. The fact that they outrebounded Memphis is something I still can't quite wrap my head around, but obviously Daniels and his career-high 11 boards had a lot to do with that. If he can play like that again, Louisville isn't going to be able to stop him.
More important than anything the team does, perhaps, is what the crowd is going to do. Dozens of fans have been staking out space in front of Gampel to get good seats, including a handful of maniacs who have been camping out since yesterday afternoon (hi Matt, Tim and Kyle!) UConn Country is going to blow the roof off of Gampel tomorrow night, and I for one couldn't be more excited.
These are the games that you look back and remember. If you mention the Jerome Dyson to Stanley Robinson half court alley-oop against Texas in 2010 to someone who was there, they will immediately rave about how crazy the crowd was and how it was one of the best sporting events they'd ever attended. Tonight has the potential to be one of those nights, so if you're going, make sure you soak it all in and do your part to help give Louisville one last unpleasant memory before they retreat to the ACC.
Tipoff is at 9 p.m., but I'll see all you crazy kids at Ted's tomorrow afternoon before the game. GO HUSKIES!