Geno Auriemma's UConn Huskies (22-0, 12-0 American) have faced numerous tests across the season from some of the best teams the NCAA has to offer.
Meeting No. 7 Ohio State on the road to open the season? 44-point win.
A trip to No. 23 DePaul? Dub. No. 3 Notre Dame making a visit to Gampel? Victory. What about No. 9 Florida State (Mohegan Sun) and No. 6 Maryland (MSG) at "neutral" sites or No. 22 South Florida on the road? Veni, vidi, vici. The Huskies' smallest margin of victory on the season is 10 points.
But tonight they face their toughest test against No. 2 South Carolina in the most highly-anticipated game of the season.
UConn is 18-3 all-time in games featuring the two top-ranked teams in the country, with a 13-2 record as No. 1. The last such meeting occurred in the 2015 National Championship game against Notre Dame. A few months earlier, the Huskies took care of business against then-No. 1 South Carolina at Gampel Pavilion, 87-62. UConn hasn't lost a "1 vs. 2" matchup since 2011 and hasn't lost as the top seed since 2001.
Most of that won't matter tonight, though, with the Huskies in hostile territory in front of a sold-out crowd of 18,000 at Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, South Carolina. It's a new year and a new season.
South Carolina also holds a 22-0 record and has beaten some solid teams along the way, including (rankings at the time of game) No. 7 Ohio State, No. 16 Arizona State, No. 14 Duke, No. 15 Texas A&M, No. 10 Mississippi State, and No. 10 Texas A&M on the road. They have won 45 straight games at Colonial Life Arena going into tonight.
The Gamecocks are led by sophomore guard A'ja Wilson, who is averaging 16.7 points and 9.1 rebounds per game. Down low, they look to junior center Alaina Coates, who stands 6-foot-4 and is averaging an SEC-leading 10 rebounds per game to go along with 12.9 points per contest. Wilson and Coates are both averaging a double-double against ranked teams.
South Carolina is great at getting to the line- the best in the nation, in fact, with 24.1 free throw attempts per game. Senior guard Tiffany Mitchell is another key contributor, averaging 14.6 points per game. Mitchell was a Wooden and Naismith Award finalist last year after earning SEC Player of the Year and multiple All-America honors.
South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley, who has been at the helm since 2008, was a star guard at Virginia and in the WNBA. She started her coaching career as head coach of the Temple Owls, a post she held for eight seasons before accepting the job at South Carolina. Staley has brought the program to great heights after a rocky start to her tenure, making the Final Four last year for the first time after two Sweet 16 appearances in the previous three years.
For Geno and the Huskies, Morgan Tuck's timely return has them whole again, though it hardly seemed like they missed her as they laid waste to a collection of conference bottom-feeders. Tuck's absence allowed Gabby Williams, Saniya Chong, Kia Nurse, Katie Lou Samuelson, Napheesa Collier and Natalie Butler to all step up at various points and develop their games so they can be stronger contributors down the road.
Tuck returned to action last week against Tulane after sitting since the UCF game on January 20. In both of the games since her return, the Huskies have scored over 90 points while allowing 38 and 46.
Those games allowed Tuck to ease back into action, but UConn will need her to be at her best tonight. The forward has been the Huskies' most consistent presence on the floor against the top teams on the schedule and South Carolina is a big team which likes to make its bread in the low post. Hopefully, Tuck, Stewie and Butler are ready for a physical battle tonight.
If UConn is going to lose a regular season game this year—something Geno might not mind, actually—tonight is the night. It doesn't appear very likely with the way UConn has been handling ranked teams so far this season, but anything can happen on the road against the best available opponent in the country.
I still think the Huskies take the win as long as their key players stay out of foul trouble, but maybe the Gamecocks can keep it to a single-digit deficit. Either way, it should be one heck of a game.