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Preview: UConn men’s basketball vs. Providence | 6:30 p.m., FS1

The Huskies take on the Friars for the second time in less than a week.

Stew Milne

How to watch

When: 6:30 p.m. EST


Radio: UConn Radio Network

Line: UConn -5.5, O/U 133

KenPom Predicted Score: UConn 69, Providence 63

UPDATE (2:05 p.m. on Feb. 16): UConn men’s basketball’s James Bouknight has been cleared for all basketball activities after missing six weeks due to an elbow injury. He’ll be active for tonight’s game against the Friars.

Six days after the Friars convincingly defeated UConn 70-59 at Alumni Hall in Rhode Island, Providence comes to Storrs for the first time in the new Big East era on Tuesday night to wrap up the season series with the Huskies.

In the previous game, UConn struggled for most of the game’s 40 minutes. Allow a blurb from our recap to put it into perspective:

“The Huskies looked disjointed all afternoon. Down the stretch, they played well enough to keep PC’s lead down but couldn’t put enough plays together to tie up the game.

“They played better. They were tougher, they played better than us, coached better than us,” head coach Dan Hurley said.

Hurley is right. From start to finish, Providence was the better team last Wednesday. The Huskies had no answer whatsoever for Friars’ head coach Ed Cooley’s talented duo of David Duke and Nate Watson, who scored 34 of PC’s 70 points. For a UConn team that prides itself on defense — and frankly, needs to be borderline elite with star James Bouknight unavailable — the Huskies gave up 1.06 points per Providence possession. Even with strong performances from Adama Sanogo (nine points, nine rebounds), Tyrese Martin (13 points) and RJ Cole (14 points) in that game, it won’t be enough to outscore opponents when the defense is getting burned.

Fortunately for the Hurley and the Huskies, things are looking up. The team looked nothing like they did against the Friars in their win over Xavier on Saturday. The defense chipped in a slightly better performance (1.03 ppp) against a Musketeers team nearly 20 spots higher in KenPom than Providence. Cole also built off his solid game against PC for his best game as a Husky, scoring 24 points with seven assist, showing his skills that made him an honorable mention All-American at Howard.

Best of all, this UConn team is healthier this time around against Providence. Martin was banged up with an ankle injury against Xavier, but Hurley said he should be good to go Tuesday night. The same can be said for Isaiah Whaley, who has been banged up the past few days. Akok Akok — who did not play against Providence but provided a spark off the bench against Xavier, scoring seven points in 10 minutes — is also healthy, but will likely not being playing significant minutes as he works to get his cardio back up following his return from an Achilles injury. Even Bouknight may be available depending on how a virtual check up with his surgeon on Monday night shakes out.

While Akok won't be able to play as many minutes per game as he did last season, there’s no doubting his ability to be a spark off the bench on both ends. He’s shown an increasing willingness to let it fly from deep this season and remains an elite rebounder and shot blocker on defense. His ability to guard basically any position allows Hurley to spell any starter for a stretch and change the momentum of the game. And if Bouknight is available, his presence alone will change the dynamic of the offense. The addition of these sophomores for this week’s go around with the Friars might be all the Huskies need to have things fall in their favor.

What to watch for

When UConn has the ball

Cole was benched for the first Providence game, then scored 14 points. He followed that up with a 24-point game in the win over Xavier and looks to have more confidence than at any other point this season. Can he keep up this scoring surge? Even if Bouknight is back, Cole will need to handle more of the offensive load than earlier in the season when both were healthy — Bouknight has practiced a bit, but he can't be expected to carry the whole team in his first game back.

Freshman Andre Jackson has also looked better as of late. Since returning from his broken wrist, Jackson scored six points against Providence and five against Xavier while also showing his prowess as a passer, racking up five assists in his last two games. We know Jackson is an otherworldly athlete, but it’s been good to see his passing ability help him contribute to the offense even when his shot’s not falling.

Whaley is known to be a stat sheet stuffer, but has been in a bit of a slump offensively prior to the Xavier game. He bounced back in a big way against the Musketeers with 12 points, 10 boards and four assists. Sanogo is probably still the best offensive big on this team in terms of skills, but Whaley’s 3-point shooting and tenacity on the boards adds another element to this offense — something the Huskies didn't have when Whaley took just four shots and was mired with foul trouble in last week's matchup against Providence.

When Providence has the ball

The duo of Watson and Duke is as good as any team in the Big East has to offer. Watson was one of the few bigs in the conference to have some offensive success against Whaley, scoring 12 points on the floor and tacking on another five at the foul line. It’s hard to imagine Watson succeeding against Whaley again, but if he does, Hurley now has the option to throw the taller and somehow lankier Akok at him for stretches.

As for Duke, Martin is the only Husky really suited to guard Duke and his 6-foot-5 frame. Jackson may also take him at times, but he could be busy trying to lock down AJ Reeves, the only other Friar in double figures last Wednesday and one of the team’s top 3-point threats.

Even for someone as talented as Watson, Hurley will likely rely on his experienced front court to step up and keep him in check, even if Duke is able to carry the Friars for stretches. If the Huskies can stay out of foul trouble (the Friars shot 27 free throws last game), it might be enough for UConn to stay close and pull out a win.

Final prediction

With or without Bouknight, the addition of Akok is a huge deal. He won't play a starter’s share of minutes, but will still make a huge impact in his time on court as Cole, Whaley and Sanogo carry the team offensively. UConn 70, Providence 67.