For the first time this season, Texas will be trying to bounce back from a loss. Connecticut’s current battles with adversity, though, go beyond results.
The Longhorns, likely to lose their No. 1 ranking when the next AP poll is released, try to avoid a losing streak Saturday when they play a Huskies team that will again be without coach Jim Calhoun.
Texas (17-1) fell from the ranks of the unbeaten with a 71-62 loss at No. 10 Kansas State on Monday. Damion James, the team’s leading scorer at 17.3 points per game, was held to nine on 3-of-12 shooting as the Longhorns shot 36.8 percent and were outrebounded 50-41.
The pressure that comes with being No. 1 has taken a toll on Texas, which had won 14 of its first 15 by double-digit margins. The Longhorns, who beat North Carolina and Michigan State by a combined 24 points in consecutive games in December, defeated Iowa State and Texas A&M by a total of 12 points before losing to the Wildcats.
“Sometimes a little pain can help you,” coach Rick Barnes said. “We’ll learn from it, move on and get ready. It’s not going to be easy, obviously. It’s not easy for anybody. I don’t care what league you’re in. This time of year is difficult and it’s how you handle winning and losing that determines how good you become in a couple of months, or a month or so.”
It would help Barnes if center Dexter Pittman reverted to his early-season form. After averaging 13.9 points on 73.3 percent shooting in the first 15 games, the 290-pound senior has been held to 16 points while shooting 5 of 16 the last three.
Pittman has not reached double figures since a 21-point outing at Arkansas on Jan. 5.
Connecticut (12-6) was ranked 10th in the Dec. 28 poll, but fell out this week because of a three-game losing streak. Calhoun announced Tuesday he would take an indefinite medical leave of absence due to health reasons, but school athletic director Jeff Hathaway said it was not career-threatening and unrelated to his previous three bouts with cancer.
“He said he knew the doctor was serious and he knew he had to listen,” said assistant George Blaney, who is running the team. “He said, ‘I’m listening this time.”’
The Huskies are 18-4 when Calhoun has missed games, but head into this contest desperate for the marquee victory they lack thus far. Connecticut is 0-4 against ranked opponents, though Blaney’s team did gather some momentum for this game with a 75-59 victory Wednesday over St. John’s.
Jerome Dyson, Stanley Robinson and Kemba Walker combined for 56 points as the Huskies shot a season-best 56.9 percent. Connecticut also went 6 for 14 from 3-point range after going 6 for 28 during its three-game skid.
Blaney expects the Huskies to come out with another focused effort similar to Wednesday’s in the way Calhoun taught his players.
“It’s his team,” Blaney said. “He has shown them how to deal with adversity. And I think that’s what these kids will pick up right away, they’ll be able to deal with something that’s hard. That’s one of the lessons he teaches as well as anybody in the country, how to deal with adversity and how to deal with hard times and how to pick yourself up and go when something goes wrong. That’s what we’ll do.”
The teams have not met since Texas defeated Connecticut 82-78 in the regional semifinals of the 2003 NCAA tournament en route to a Final Four appearance.