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Preview: UConn men’s basketball at Providence | 4 p.m. ET, FS1

The Huskies will have to contain the Friars’ dynamic duo of David Duke and Nate Watson.

NCAA Basketball: Providence at Creighton Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

What a week it’s been for UConn sports, and it’s only Tuesday. Men’s hockey is ranked for the first time ever. Women’s basketball kept the (Nike) ball rolling last night after knocking off No. 1 South Carolina in thrilling fashion. It’s the men’s turn tomorrow, when they take on old foe Providence in a pivotal Big East clash. Star sophomore James Bouknight could make his long-awaited return after a six-game absence with an elbow injury.

When: 4:00 p.m. Eastern

Where: Alumni Hall, Providence, Rhode Island

TV: FS1

Radio: UConn Sports Network

Line: UConn -1.5, O/U 133

KenPom Predicted Score: UConn 67, Providence 65

After a loss to Seton Hall where the rust looked obvious due to another COVID-19 related pause, the UConn Huskies (No. 34 KenPom) will look to get back on track on the road vs. the Friars (No. 78 KenPom). The last time the two teams officially met was UConn’s last game in the old Big East, where the Huskies won 63-59 in overtime paced by 23 points from Ryan Boatright. UConn boasts a 44-28 all-time record vs. their regional neighbors. Here’s a little trip down memory lane:

After a rusty, hard-fought loss against Seton Hall, UConn — currently ranked fifth in the Big East — needs to start stacking wins to solidify their NCAA tournament hopes. They are 4-3 without Bouknight, but got an immediate boost last Saturday with freshman Andre Jackson returning from a wrist injury. UConn still leads the Big East in scoring defense, holding opponents to 64.8 points per game and also rank second in rebound margin, offensive rebounding, steals, and blocks.

Providence (5-8, 9-10 overall) is fresh off a double-digit loss to suddenly red-hot St. John’s, and sits seventh in the Big East. Don’t be fooled by the Friars’ three-game skid; they boast wins this year vs. No. 19 Creighton and split their season series with Seton Hall. Three of the Friars’ eight league losses have been by a combined four points, including some games without point guard Jared Bynum, a St. Joe’s transfer.

When Providence Has the Rock

It’s the David Duke show on the perimeter. The man with the most unfortunate name in sports has lived up to his preseason First-Team All Big East nod, sitting first in the conference in minutes (37.6 mpg), fifth in scoring (17.5 ppg) and second in assists (5.1 apg).

Inside, the Friars are paced by the equally capable Nate Watson, a preseason All Big East Second-teamer. The bruising 6-foot-10 senior center is third in the conference in scoring (17.9 ppg) and field goal percentage (61%). He has an array of post moves and gobbles up offensive rebounds (2.7 orpg) at a rate second only to Tyrese Martin in the conference.

Surrounding the dynamic duo are role players that can defend, hit open shots, and take care of the ball. A.J. Reeves is dangerous third option that can score 20-plus points on any given night. Senior forward Noah Horchler shoots 45% from downtown and is 6-10 from three his last two games. Bynum has an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.8, but has missed the last eight games with a lower body injury.

Make no mistake though; if you stop one of Duke and Watson, you likely have Providence on the ropes. The two players have scored 49% (672 pts) of the team’s 1,362 points this season. Nine other players have combined to score 690 points. Duke is the type of player who can create something out of nothing late in the clock, and those types of teams are always dangerous. He’s a good enough shooter to keep defenses honest, and his 6-foot-5 frame and length mean he can get to the paint at will.

With Bynum out, he’s had to do even more; Duke has either made or assisted on 44% of all Providence field goals over the last five games. The junior guard has 21 field goals and 30 assists in those games. Duke’s size mean Tyrese Martin likely draws the matchup, who doesn’t give up anything physically. But it will also be curious to see if Hurley places Jackson on him as well to disrupt the Friar’s star.

The 260-pound Watson likes to establish position deep on the low block, which could be a problem for the lankier 230-pound Isaiah Whaley. The good news is UConn can throw the heavier Adama Sanogo or Josh Carlton in to combat the physicality. UConn will have to force Watson to catch the ball as far away from the paint as possible. Out there, you have to like Whaley’s quickness in contesting mid-range looks or staying in front of any drives.

When UConn Has The Rock

Providence head coach Ed Cooley’s has always instilled his teams with a hard-nosed, lunch-pail, whatever-cliché-you-want-to-use defensive identity. Last year the Friars’ defensive unit ranked No. 1 in the Big East per KenPom and 27th overall. For some reason this year, it hasn’t translated. Providence is ninth in the conference in scoring defense and eighth in field goal percentage defense. They do pressure shooters though, sitting second in 3-point percentage defense.

Beyond the numbers, they have size and length on the perimeter, which has posed an issue for UConn team’s this season (think St John’s) It will be so important for the likes of Martin, Jalen Gaffney, RJ Cole, and Brendan Adams to beat the first defender and force the defense to collapse. While Watson has a reputation as a chirping bully who will try to intimidate you on the offensive end, he doesn’t pose much of a rim protecting threat. So how do you deal with a bully? You put him in the rim with you. Sanogo has averaged eight shots in his last three games, and that shouldn’t change. Go right into Watson’s chest, or toss a few pump fakes to get him in the air.

Having Bouknight back and attacking downhill could finally open up looks for Tyler Polley. After his January explosion, it’s clear he’s number one on scouting reports, and that extra defensive attention has been too much for him. Teams have been okay with letting Martin and Cole get to double-digits, as long as no one was boarding the Polley trolley.

Keys to the Game

Fly, Huskies, Fly

Duke and Watson are too talented to shut down entirely. UConn has to just make life miserable enough for them that they’re working for every bucket. The Friars are in the bottom half of the Big East in nearly every shooting category, so expect to see a lot of doubles to get the ball out of Watson and Duke’s hands. If UConn can fly around the court defensively like it did earlier in January, the Huskies could be in good shape. Duke will get his points, even though the matchup with Martin on paper looks good. But UConn will need to force Duke to be a creator instead of an off-the-ball threat and let someone else beat them.

The Return of the Wrench

As noted in the Seton Hall preview, whoever got the best between Sandro Mamukelashvili and Whaley would win last Saturday’s game. Well, ‘Mamu’ got his. But there has to be “next play” mentality for UConn’s defensive anchor; another heavyweight fight with Watson looms. If Whaley can harass Watson and match his energy level, it should trickle down and keep the rest of the team in a frenzied state. With how poorly both teams shoot the ball, this has the makings of an old-school Big East rockfight. The Huskies will need their wrench to tighten the defensive screws.

All Eyes on the Injury Report

Stating the obvious; this is an entirely different game if Bouknight is healthy. If he is, the game plan becomes integrating the potential NBA lottery pick in with a team that’s had to live without their star for six weeks. That’s a good problem to have.

If he’s out, it’s the same old song and dance. Defend like rabid dogs, and hope someone steps up with 20+ points. The problem has been getting both of those things to occur in the same game.

Prediction

Batting a solid .500 on predictions.

Bouknight back: UConn wins, 70-59.

Bouknight sits: UConn wins, 64-63.