Connecticut has fought through three lackluster performances to stay unbeaten. Jim Calhoun’s team probably can’t afford to have another one this week.
The level of competition is a big step up in the NIT Season Tip-Off, starting Wednesday night with the No. 13 Huskies facing unbeaten LSU in the semifinals at Madison Square Garden.
“Knowing coach Calhoun like I know him, I don’t think he’s very pleased with the way they’ve been playing, so we’ll get a maximum effort,” LSU coach Trent Johnson said.
This contest, as well as a tournament final or consolation game Friday against No. 7 Duke or undefeated Arizona State, comes after UConn (3-0) eked out home wins over small conference opponents.
The Huskies’ second-half lead was cut to four in a 75-66 win over William & Mary, they were up one at halftime in a 77-63 victory over Colgate and trailed by nine with 9 minutes left last Tuesday in a 76-67 win over Hofstra.
“We’re definitely going to have to do a better job when we get to New York,” forward Gavin Edwards said. “Our goal is to go to New York and win the whole thing.”
The Huskies got a week off to fix what has gone wrong after that latest narrow victory sent them to this event’s semifinals.
“You look at the scoreboard and you really don’t know what to think,” guard Jerome Dyson said. “Our goal was to get to New York and it wasn’t looking like that’s where we were going. We had to battle back.”
Dyson is off to a strong start after a knee injury cut his 2008-09 season short, forcing him to miss UConn’s run to the Final Four. He’s averaging team highs of 20.0 points and 6.0 assists, and the senior scored 15 of his 23 points in the final 7:11 against Hofstra.
Calhoun wants his team to improve on the glass. The Huskies failed to outrebound William & Mary and Hofstra, and they only had two more boards than Colgate.
UConn outrebounded 24 of its first 25 opponents last season.
“I know we’re facing all spread teams, I understand that, and we won’t face spread teams much like this in the league, but the ball is still there and we still should be able to do a better job,” Calhoun said.
LSU (3-0) has easily outrebounded its three opponents, averaging a 13.7 margin.
Storm Warren has posted three double-doubles, averaging 16.3 points and 11.7 rebounds. Tasmin Mitchell, an all-SEC first teamer last season after averaging 16.7 points, is adding 11.7 points and 9.0 boards per game.
“They’re a great basketball team and they’re coached by a Hall of Famer,” Mitchell said of UConn. “But, they put their shoes on in the morning just like us.”
LSU is seeking a second straight win over an NCAA tournament team following a 71-60 victory over Western Kentucky last Tuesday.
Bo Spencer scored a career-high 28 and made 4 of 9 from 3-point range after going 3 for 17 in the first two games.
Dyson hasn’t been much better at 4 for 15, but UConn big man Stanley Robinson already has matched his 2008-09 total with three 3-pointers. Robinson averages 16.7 points but only 4.7 rebounds - he averaged 6.2 over the previous two seasons.
Robinson had 28 points and 14 boards in UConn’s last game at MSG, a six-overtime loss to Syracuse in the Big East tournament.
“The Garden’s always special, a terrific place to play,” Robinson said. “There’s something special and I love to play here.”