PHILADELPHIA (AP)—Here are the Connecticut Huskies, a No. 1 seed looking more fragile than formidable.
One of their top scorers is out, they were on the losing end of a six-overtime marathon, and it’s been three—three!—years since Connecticut’s last postseason win.
And there’s something familiar about this first-round game that can’t help but make the Huskies a bit squeamish.
There’s still time to change all that.
The top-seeded Huskies (27-4) open the West Regional on Thursday against Chattanooga looking to prove they’re not much different from the one that started 23-1 and were the top team in the loaded Big East and all off basketball.
No. 16 seed Chattanooga is trying to stick it to the Huskies and pull off the greatest of all NCAA upsets. The Mocs (18-16) have UConn’s attention.
“They’re a seasoned team and this is their chance,” UConn coach Jim Calhoun said Wednesday. “But I look at it as being Connecticut’s chance.”
The Huskies’ sense of invincibility was rocked the final three weeks of the season when they lost guard Jerome Dyson (13.2 points) to a season-ending knee injury. Dyson was injured early in a Feb. 11 win against Syracuse, then the Huskies stumbled to a 4-3 finish without him.
That included the classic 127-117 six-overtime thriller against the Orange in a Big East quarterfinal that stretched nearly four hours and ended in the cruelest of ways.
The Huskies insist they have moved on from the draining defeat and might even be a better, guttier team because of the experience.
“It showed our heart and how tough we are out on the court,” forward Jeff Adrien said. “A lot of teams would have quit at the third overtime, but we kept fighting.”
The Mocs can only wish the Huskies haven’t recovered.
There is one flicker, one dose of hope that maybe, just maybe, Chattanooga can pull off the kind of stunning victory that inspires a hokey sports movie.
2006. Wachovia Center. No. 1 UConn vs. No. 16 Albany.
The Great Danes showed no fear and pushed a Huskies team stuffed with NBA talent like Rudy Gay and Josh Boone to the limit and led 50-38 8 1/2 minutes into the second half. The packed crowd rooted for the upset and gave the game a decidedly upstate New York flavor. It also caused some tense rumblings in the gut on the UConn bench.
“If you’re a high seed and you’re up seven, you’ve got a little sweat going on the brow,” Calhoun said. “If you’re the low seed and you’re down seven, you’re happy as hell. That’s not going to change.”
Chattanooga coach John Shulman said he quickly asked for that game tape when the brackets were announced. Spoiler alert. It didn’t end well for Albany.
UConn did what No. 1 seeds do, and went on a 20-4 run to win by 13.
Calhoun said the Huskies weren’t as focused as they needed to be in 2006 because many key players were already thinking about their post-collegiate careers. He believes this year will be different, even with the recent setbacks.
“The bottom line is, we’re still a good basketball team,” Calhoun said.
A good team that’s 0-for-postseason play since 2006. The Big East and NCAA tournament losing streak is now at five games over the past three years.
The skid started with an overtime loss to George Mason in the 2006 regional final, then first-game losses to Syracuse (’07) and West Virginia (’08) in the conference tournament and a 70-69 overtime defeat against San Diego last year in the NCAAs.
Syracuse made them suffer for loss No. 5.
“We found out it wasn’t a God-given right,” to win first-round games, Calhoun said. “I never thought it was, but you can get that assumption sometimes.”
Instead of talking about six overtimes, they’d like to chat about six more wins—and the national title.
To avoid becoming the first top seed to tumble, they’ll have to beat a Chattanooga team used to playing—and getting thumped by—college basketball’s big boys. The Mocs earned their spot in line as the latest No. 16 seed trying to knock off a No. 1 with a win in the Southern Conference championship game.
“The 16-1 is going to come,” Calhoun said.
The Mocs know history is against them. So are the oddsmakers—they are a 20 1/2 -point underdog.
All the better for the Mocs who believe it will only make for a better story if they can pull off the greatest upset in tournament history.
“I don’t want them up here having fun, just enjoying the moment,” Shulman said. “We can enjoy the moment in two weeks. We’ll all look back and enjoy the moment. This is not the time to enjoy the moment.”
Chattanooga sure didn’t enjoy losing a stretch of games to open the season that sounds more like a regional bracket.
In order, they lost to Tennessee, Missouri, Memphis and USC in a November string that contributed to a 1-7 start. None of the losses to those NCAA tournament teams were by fewer than 12 points and they were crushed by 39 against the Volunteers.
Guard Stephen McDowell leads the Mocs in scoring (18.6 points), is the school’s career leader in 3-pointers (243) and was the most outstanding player in the Southern Conference tournament. He’ll have to be near-flawless on his long shots for the Mocs to cash in on their long shot odds.
The seed, the opponent and the odds haven’t deterred Terrell Owens’ alma mater. When Connecticut’s name flashed on the TV screen as the NCAA tournament opponent, the Mocs barely flinched.
“Just because they’re UConn doesn’t mean they’re invincible. It doesn’t mean they can’t be beat,” forward Nicchaeus Doaks said.
Maybe the Hocs should try and get the game to a sixth overtime.