UConn closes out its home schedule tonight with a game against Houston, which provides the Huskies with a momentous occasion in many ways. First and foremost, Houston is the best team in the conference, and tonight’s game is the best chance UConn has of beating them. Houston has also represented a hurdle for most of UConn’s run in the American Athletic Conference, as a team that, when good, UConn has largely been unable to beat, and a victory would mark a turning point for the program. And, most importantly, this might be the last game UConn ever has to play on CBS Sports Network.
UConn (17-12, 8-8 AAC) has lost its last three games against Houston, and has dropped seven of the last eight, with the lone win in that timeframe coming in Christian Vital’s freshman year. Vital played 38 minutes in that game, and will likely have to do something similar tonight, given that the Huskies could be down to just six scholarship players. With Alterique Gilbert questionable with a back injury and Sidney Wilson still indefinitely suspended, the healthy athletes on Dan Hurley’s roster will have their work cut out for them.
The Huskies’ shallow rotation should be mouthwatering to Kelvin Sampson and Houston, which has used its depth to become one of the most underrated teams in the country. The Cougars (22-7, 12-4 AAC) rank 11th in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency margin, much higher than their No. 21 ranking in the AP Poll would suggest. They haven’t lost a game by more than two points since Dec. 15, and all their wins have come by a margin of more than one possession.
As if that wasn’t enough, they play a tough brand of basketball that’s impressive on both ends of the court, exhibits great chemistry and discipline (give or take the occasional Dejon Jarreau outburst, which, quite frankly, I respect), and is generally really difficult to beat. You could make the case that four different players on the team are actually their best player. They force opponents to take bad shots. They attack the rim and get to the free throw line. All the little things that add up to points and opportunities are things that Sampson includes as part of his game plan.
Meanwhile, we’ve still yet to see what Dan Hurley can do with a healthy roster for a full season. With another depleted lineup on the bench tonight, though strong reinforcements on the horizon for next season, UConn’s performance tonight could simply be taken as a benchmark of growth.
That would be a mistake, and the Senior Night ceremony should point out exactly why. Honoring a walk-on in Temi Ayegbusi, the two most injured players in UConn history in Gilbert and Mamadou Diarra, and the program’s career leader in bruises, Christian Vital. The last UConn senior class to never make an NCAA Tournament included Cliff Robinson, and that was more than 30 years ago. Vital, and the others, have given enough for fans to not just see this season as a stepping stone, and while an upset over Houston wouldn’t be enough to give UConn a March Madness bid, it would put them in better position to earn an automatic bid.
Prediction: The optimism ends here. UConn’s AAC Tournament run, still a hypothetical, will have to avoid Houston for as long as possible. As long as the Cougars have more bodies, they’ll be able to beat the Huskies, since their swarming perimeter defense can wreak havoc on a tired lineup. Houston 68, UConn 62.
How to watch
Where: Gampel Pavilion, Storrs, Connecticut
When: 7 p.m.
TV: the dreaded CBS Sports Network
Radio: UConn IMG Radio Network