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Preview: UConn Men’s Basketball vs. Houston | 7 p.m., ESPN

The Huskies take on the top team of the conference tonight.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

The Huskies will be back in action tonight with a tough opponent as UConn hosts Houston in Hartford.

UConn (13-11, 4-7 American) has struggled to adjust to its injuries, as a team that once counted depth among its assets has become one of the shallowest in the conference. Without star guards Jalen Adams and Alterique Gilbert (and backup center Kassoum Yakwe), the Huskies are missing two of their best players and are having a difficult time replacing their production.

While everyone on the UConn roster has assumed a larger role in the meantime, it’s hard to expect inexperienced players to just replace a senior leader and the starting point guard. While Dan Hurley isn’t exactly focusing on next season, he’s clearly trying to give his young Huskies more playing time while hoping his two lead guards will be healthy for the conference tournament.

UConn’s misfortune couldn’t have come at a better time for Houston (23-1, 10-1 AAC), which has been romping through its schedule, with the only blemish coming at Temple in early January. Kelvin Sampson’s Cougars have easily withstood the loss of AAC career scoring leader Rob Gray, and have possibly become even better since his departure.

The Cougars aren’t a fast-paced team, and they aren’t led by one dynamic scorer. They spread the ball around, wait for good shots, dominate the boards, and take care of the ball. In other words, they’re a coach’s dream. The defense is even better, holding opponents to just 43.2 percent from two and 27 percent from beyond the arc, both of which rank in the top-10 nationwide.

While some of that defense may be luck (it’s been suggested by basketball mathematicians that a large portion of opponent 3-point percentage is due to shooting ability, not defensive ability), much of it isn’t, as the Cougars run one of the most smothering defensive schemes in the country. Every player on the roster is capable of running Sampson’s system, which is why he can play up to 10 players if he wishes (though he typically employs a nine-man rotation).

The Cougars offense is a little easier to combat, but that’s mostly because of how good the defense is. Corey Davis Jr. and Armoni Brooks are the top scorers, and they take the bulk of their shots from three, as perhaps the team’s only 3-point threats. Everyone else tends to work from inside, where the lane can get packed, giving them little space to get a shot off. Of course, the Cougars are an excellent offensive rebounders and rarely turn the ball over, so they’re still listed as a top-40 offense in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive rating statistic, so they are still dangerous, just unorthodoxly so.

The Huskies will have their chances to give the Cougars a game. Houston plays slowly, which could keep the scoring margin close, their game is built around rebounding, which UConn has shown to be excellent at when the Huskies make it a priority, and they don’t force a lot of turnovers, which could help keep UConn’s giveaways down.

That said, there’s a reason Houston has lost only once all season; they rarely break down and have the infrastructure to keep themselves afloat at all times. A combination of coaching and smart play can take talent a long way, and Houston has found a formula to make sure the system keeps working in their favor.

What to look for

When UConn has the ball: Without two key ballhandlers in Adams and Gilbert, does Hurley try to play Christian Vital out of his comfort zone against Houston’s active defense, or does he entrust the safer but less-threatening Tarin Smith with point guard duties in the half-court? Can Josh Carlton or Eric Cobb break out against a defense that can swarm post players with the ball in their hands? Will Sidney Wilson continue a hot streak on offense?

When Houston has the ball: How hot will the outside shooting be? Can Carlton cover enough ground on defense to shut down an interior offensive attack? How effective will Wilson’s help defense be?

How to watch

Where: XL Center, Hartford, CT

When: 7 p.m.


Radio: UConn IMG Sports Network