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First-place Cincinnati to take on gritty UConn men

By Gavin Keefe

Publication: The Day

Published February 06. 2014 4:00AM   Updated February 06. 2014 7:15AM

The timing is perfect for tonight's marquee matchup between UConn and Cincinnati.

The 22nd-ranked Huskies (17-4, 5-3) are playing their best stretch of all-around basketball this season, winning six of their last seven games. They've built an identity around togetherness and toughness. They're even regularly winning the rebounding battle, something they failed to do on a consistent basis earlier this season.

The seventh-ranked Bearcats (21-2, 10-0) are riding a 14-game unbeaten streak, off to their best start in 12 years, and reside in first place in the American Athletic Conference. Their trademark is a smothering defense.

Two of the conference's top players - Cincinnati's Sean Kilpatrick and UConn's Shabazz Napier - both are on a scoring tear.

So buckle your seatbelts for tonight's AAC nationally-televised showdown (ESPN) at 7 p.m. at the Fifth Third Arena in Cincinnati.

"It has the makings of a great game," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. "Two of the best players in the country going at it, two ranked teams. It should be a great environment."

UConn has more at stake than Cincinnati.

Entering Wednesday's action, the Huskies sit in fifth place. Tonight's game also kicks off a two-game road trip for the Huskies, who visit Central Florida on Sunday.

They can make a significant statement with a win tonight.

"When I say they're the best team in the league, record-wise they are," UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. "But we can fight with them. I want to show them that we can. I think all of our guys are going to step up and play hard.

"But everybody is looking up at them and they're playing some great basketball. But it's another opportunity to show what UConn is made of."

UConn will face its stiffest conference test with junior DeAndre Daniels still recovering from a high right ankle sprain that forced the team's second-leading scorer to miss last Thursday's win over Houston.

Daniels returned to practice earlier this week but remains limited. He's also been dealing with some back spasms.

"It's probably 75 percent that he will play," Ollie said Wednesday. "He looked pretty good but the other day he had back spasms, so we were very cautious today. … Hopefully, he's ready for tomorrow."

So far this season, the Huskies have responded well when missing a starter, routing Temple (90-66) on Jan. 21 without Ryan Boatright and crushing Houston (80-43) on Thursday without Daniels.

But the Bearcats are significantly better than those two AAC teams. They've made life miserable for opposing teams with their defensive tenacity, ranking fourth in the nation in points allowed per game at 56.7. Aggressive senior Justin Jackson, the league's leading shot blocker at 3.3, protects the basket.

A half-court game would favor the Bearcats.

"They're going to try take out your first, second and third options so we're going to have to be disciplined as a team and have low turnovers and have to keep rebounding the basketball like we've been rebounding," Ollie said. "And we're going to have to score early. I don't want to get in a game where we're playing against their set defense because that's what they're really good at."

UConn's defensive focus will be on Kilpatrick, the league's top scorer at 19.4 points per game. He's led the team in scoring in 20 of 23 games.

At times, Kilpatrick has single-handedly carried the Bearcats, including scoring the last eight points in Sunday's 50-45 win over South Florida. He joins Napier and Louisville's Russ Smith as front-runners for AAC player of the year honors.

"He's a great player," Ollie said. "He's a basketball player that's going to need everybody's attention. It's not just going to be one person. We're going to do by committee, like we always do. … He's going to score his points but we want to make it hard for him and difficult every time he touches the ball."

The impact of a layoff may be a concern, too.

The Huskies last played a week ago against Houston. But the break also was helpful because Daniels had time to heal.

Ollie already has dismissed the time between games as an excuse.

"Cincinnati is not going to worry about if we haven't played in six or seven days," Ollie said. "They're not going to care one bit."

g.keefe@theday.com

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NO. 22 UCONN AT NO. 7 CINCINNATI

Location: Fifth Third Arena, Cincinnati.

Tip-off time: 7 p.m. (ESPN).

Records: UConn 17-4, 5-3; Cincinnati 21-2, 10-0.

Last game: UConn beat Houston 80-43 Thursday; Cincinnati defeated South Florida 50-45 Sunday.

Probable starters: UConn, 6-1 sr. guard Shabazz Napier (17.9 pts, 5.7 assists, 6.0 rebs), 6-0 jr. guard Ryan Boatright (12.4 pts, 3.6 assists), 6-8 jr. forward DeAndre Daniels (13.4 pts, 5.6 rebs), 6-6 grad. forward Lasan Kromah (7.0 pts, 2.7 rebs), 7-foot fr. center Amida Brimah (4.0 pts, 2.9 rebs, 2.7 blks).

Cincinnati, 6-1 jr. guard Ge'Lawn Guyn (4.8 pts,), 6-4 sr. guard Sean Kilpatrick (19.4 pts, 4.2 rebs), 6-8 sr. forward Justin Jackson (11.3 pts, 7.0 rebs, 3.3 blks), 6-7 sr. forward Titus Rubles (7.3 pts, 6.4 rebs), 6-7 so. forward Shaquille Thomas (7.1 pts, 3.1 rebs).

Noteworthy: Highest-ranked opponent left on UConn's schedule. … Huskies won six of last seven, Bearcats won 14 straight. … Series: UConn leads 8-4. Split last year's meetings, winning 73-66 (OT) at home and losing 61-56 on the road. … Cincy undefeated at home (15-0). … Top reserve: 6-5 jr. Jermaine Sanders (6.1 pts, 3.3 rebs) … Injury update: Daniels (ankle) probable. … Napier leads AAC games in scoring at 21.5 and Kilpatrick first in overall games at 19.4. … Jackson first in AAC in blocks. … Hot: UConn shooting 77.4 percent from foul line, ranking fifth in the nation. Cold: Cincy holding foes to a league-low 56.7 points per game. … Huskies 2-1 vs. ranked opponents this season and 2-2 in conference road games. … Up next: UConn visits Central Florida Sunday night.

— Gavin Keefe

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