After ending the regular season on a disappointing note, Connecticut is eager to get back on the court. It may not be so thrilled to open the Big East tournament against Syracuse, however.
The No. 3 Huskies look to end a three-game tournament losing streak against the 18th-ranked Orange when the teams meet in Thursday night’s quarterfinals at Madison Square Garden.
UConn (27-3) fell out of the top spot in the AP poll Monday after it finished the regular season Saturday with a 70-60 loss to then-No. 3 Pittsburgh. It was the Huskies’ second loss to Pittsburgh as the nation’s top-ranked team.
Despite the disappointing finish, UConn begins the Big East tournament following a double-bye as it tries to snap a four-game Big East tournament losing streak. The Huskies lost to Syracuse (24-8) in the 2006 and 2007 tournaments, falling in overtime in 2006 as the No. 1 team in the country. They also opened the 2005 Big East tournament with a loss to the Orange.
Connecticut’s most pressing task Thursday is to get off to a better offensive start than it did against the Panthers over the weekend. The Huskies, who are trying to make a case for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, scored their fewest points and shot a season-low 37.7 percent in the loss.
While his team struggled, 7-foot-3 center Hasheem Thabeet finished with his third straight double-double, recording 14 points, 13 rebounds and five blocks. He was held scoreless in the second half, however.
“Today, we wanted Hasheem Thabeet to come out and establish himself,” coach Jim Calhoun said. “He did a good job of that, but we didn’t get the ball to him enough.”
Thabeet, the Big East co-player of the year with Pittsburgh’s DeJuan Blair, is averaging 13.6 points, 10.6 rebounds and 4.5 blocks per game. He’s looking for a better performance in this season’s Big East tournament after finishing with a combined nine points and 12 rebounds in two tournament games over the previous two years.
Syracuse guard Jonny Flynn said controlling Thabeet could determine the game’s outcome. Thabeet had 16 rebounds and seven blocks in UConn’s 63-49 win over the Orange on Feb. 11.
“We can’t let them dominate us,” Flynn said. “(Thabeet) basically dominated the game … from a defensive standpoint. I think we just have to go in there stronger. … Really go at the mindset we’re not going to let this guy control the game from a defensive standpoint.”
Flynn and Syracuse came off their first-round bye with an 89-74 win over Seton Hall on Wednesday. Flynn had 19 points and 11 assists while Eric Devendorf scored all 19 of his points in the second half. The Orange shot 56.9 percent, finishing with 30 assists.
“We just wanted to get past this first game,” Flynn said. “We came out a little flat and struggled shooting a little bit, but picked it up in the second half.”
Syracuse comes into Thursday’s meeting with some momentum, unlike the last time it faced the Huskies when it had lost five of seven.
The Orange have won five straight, averaging 83.8 points and shooting 56.6 percent during that stretch. They were held to a season-low point total against the Huskies last month, shooting only 31.7 percent.
With Wednesday’s win, Syracuse improved to 2-2 in the conference tournament since winning consecutive titles in 2005 and 2006. Last season it opened the tournament with a loss to Villanova.
Thursday’s winner advances to play either Pittsburgh or Rutgers in Friday’s semifinals.