UC-UConn preview

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The Connecticut squad you'll see tonight should look awfully familiar. Yes, Hasheem Thabeet, Jeff Adrien and A.J. Price no longer are with the Huskies, but that's not what I mean. Instead, what should jog your memory is how this year's UConn team, ranked 10th in the country, plays: big and strong, physical, a team that will block its opponents' shots while out-rebounding them for missed buckets.


It's how the Huskies, no matter their personnel, usually play.


No Thabeet, Adrien or Price. Instead, there's Stanley Robinson (who's coming off a season-high 29-point performance vs. Iona), there are guards Kemba Walker (who leads the Big East with 6.4 assists per game) and Kevin Dyson, and there's forward Gavin Edwards (who's shooting a league-best 71.4 percent from the floor and seventh in the country with 3.7 blocks per game).


Not only that, the Huskies play outstanding defense, as they lead the country in blocked shots per game (9.8) and rank 11th in field goal defense (36.5 percent).


But here's one reason why UC will have a good chance to pull the upset tonight at 5/3. Unlike last season, when the Bearcats took an 81-72 loss and were dominated in the paint and on the glass, UC has played well defensively in the post. So, UConn shouldn't see quite as many easy buckets from inside the paint.


"Defensively, I'm very comfortable with where we're at," Mick Cronin said. "We can put big bodies out there, and they understand how not to give up easy baskets. There's one thing that Yancy (Gates) and Steve (Toyloy) and Biggie (McClain) and Ibrahima Thomas can do, they can defend. We don't have to double-team the low post against anybody in America. That's an advantage. You don't have to worry about getting destroyed inside. Last year, A.J. Price was great and when he didn't shoot the ball in, they destroyed us from five feet in. That hasn't been a problem for us this year."


Cronin knows that because the Bearcats have faced a pretty tough non-conference schedule. Teams like Gonzaga, Xavier, Maryland and Vanderbilt have allowed UC to see where it needs to improve - and where it's pretty good.


I asked Cronin on Monday if he thought he got what he needed out of the non-conference schedule, and, though he decried the fact he had no choice in scheduling Xavier and UAB (which turned into two road losses), it seems like he feels pretty good about it.


"I have a philosophy (about non-conference scheduling), but I inherit a lot of games," he said. "I had a choice with Maui. I thought that would be great for us. You have to have balance (in the schedule). You've got to develop your team early, but you can't play 30 wars. It's ridiculous to think you can do that. I hear suggestions that you have to play better home games if you want the arena to fill up. Nobody does that. You have to have some home games to build confidence and gain a rhythm. But you have to get yourself ready for conference play. The last thing you want to do is have false hope. You have to get a dose of reality. Going on the road, it doesn't matter who it's against, you have to be careful going on the road before you're ready."


Cronin points to the fact host Cleveland State nearly upended West Virginia earlier this season and that Villanova lost its first true road game of the season at Temple. For the record, the Huskies haven't played a true road game, though they faced LSU, Duke and Kentucky at Madison Square Garden in two different events (UConn beat LSU and lost the other two).


Sophomore forward Yancy Gates, for one, thinks UC's non-conference schedule was helpful.


"In Maui, we played Gonzaga, and Gonzaga is actually bigger than UConn," said Gates, whose squad was outrebounded 40-35 by the Zags and allowed Gonzaga center Robert Sacre to score a team-high 14 points. "We played Xavier; they're big. We played a lot of teams that have prepared us for the Big East."


--Senior Steve Toyloy made his first appearance in the media room Monday, and though I only caught part of it, he made a funny when somebody asked him if he had been refreshed by the team's recent break (it's been eight days since the Bearcats last played)


"Do what? The break?" he said. "We got two days off."


Eh, it was funnier, I suppose, in person.

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