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Huskies welcome Mustangs

By Gavin Keefe

Publication: The Day

Published February 23. 2014 4:00AM
Jessica Hill/AP Photo
UConn's Shabazz Napier shoots as Memphis' Shaq Goodwin defends during a Feb. 15 game in Hartford. The Huskies play host to SMU today at Gampel Pavilion.

Storrs — Every successful season has a turning point.

UConn reached its turning point after consecutive road losses to Houston and Southern Methodist to open the American Athletic Conference season.

"We took it for granted that we were just going to show up with UConn on our jersey and people were just going to lie down," coach Kevin Ollie said.

The Huskies learned a valuable lesson and altered their mindset. They've embraced a sense of urgency every time they step on the court.

Since then, they've gone 10-2 and climbed into the top four of the conference standings.

No. 21 UConn (21-5, 9-4) hosts third place SMU (21-6, 10-4) today (2 p.m., CBSSN) at Gampel Pavilion.

"We definitely took those two games for granted," senior Shabazz Napier said. "We wish we could have got those games back. But we understand it's over with and done with and now we've got to move on. We've got a big task in front of us and hopefully we can get a win."

Today's outcome will significantly impact the AAC title race.

With only five games remaining in the regular season, UConn is still in the hunt thanks in part to Louisville (23-4, 12-2) beating first-place Cincinnati (24-4, 13-2) on Saturday. The Huskies host Cincinnati next Saturday and visit Louisville on March 8.

"It's going to be a big-time game for us," Ollie said. "I know the atmosphere is going to be crazy. I'm looking forward to it."

There's a lot at stake for SMU, too. The surprising Mustangs are in unfamiliar territory, closing in on their first NCAA tournament berth since 1993. But they've struggled at times on the road, going just 5-5.

"We've played good at home but it's a huge challenge for us right now going on the road," SMU coach Larry Brown said. "We're a young team and haven't had a lot of experience playing big games. So it will be a big challenge for us playing Connecticut."

SMU secured a 74-65 win in the first meeting on Jan. 4. The backcourt of Nic Moore and Nick Russell combined for 34 points, helping the Mustangs pull away late. The Huskies will try to disrupt Moore, who averages a team-high 14.1 points.

"Moore is great and Russell is as tough as a defender as they come," Ollie said. "But Moore is absolutely the catalyst of that team. … Whenever they need a basket, they're going to put the ball in Moore's hands and let him make a play. So we've got to make sure starting with Boat (Ryan Boatright) that we're on him."

The Mustangs play sound two-way basketball, leading the conference in field goal percentage (49.3) and field goal percentage defense (37.1). They can score from the inside and outside. And they've played some of their best basketball against ranked teams, going 3-1.

For Brown, just playing at a tradition-rich program like UConn will be a good experience for his team.

"I'm excited about going to Connecticut," Brown said. "I want our kids to be in an environment like that. When you walk in and look at the banners and look at the body of work of that program, that's something that we're trying to get to someday."

It will be a special afternoon for UConn, as the 1998-99 national championship team and its point guard Khalid El-Amin will be inducted into the Huskies of Honor during a half-time ceremony.

g.keefe@theday.com

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