Connecticut has beaten four top 12 teams, but Jim Calhoun felt last week’s comeback win over an unranked opponent - which allowed the Huskies to avoid a third straight loss - was perhaps their most significant achievement of the season.
If they aren’t careful, any momentum gained from that game could disappear quickly.
St. John’s has knocked off three top 15 teams at Madison Square Garden in 2011, leaving No. 10 UConn with a major challenge as it tries to win its fifth consecutive road game Thursday night.
UConn (18-4, 6-4 Big East) was ranked fifth in the Jan. 24 poll, then went out and won its sixth straight the next night at Marquette.
Poor shooting, however, doomed the Huskies in their next two games, both at home. UConn made a combined 37.0 percent from the field in losses to then-No. 23 Louisville and No. 17 Syracuse, falling to 4-4 against the Top 25.
It looked like the Huskies were on their way to a third consecutive defeat Saturday at Seton Hall, trailing 56-46 with eight minutes to play. Instead of continuing to crumble, UConn finished on a 15-3 run to grab a fourth straight road win, 61-59.
“This young group is taking me on some ways a great roller coaster ride, at least it was great tonight,” Calhoun said. “That ranks with anything we’ve done this season.”
If the Huskies plan on making a deep NCAA tournament run, though, they’re likely going to need Kemba Walker to regain his shooting touch. The Big East’s leading scorer with 23.2 points per game, he’s averaged 16.8 and shot 31.8 percent in his last six contests.
The junior guard did hit the team’s only three 3-pointers against Seton Hall - including the go-ahead 3 with 2:32 to play - and grabbed five second-half rebounds.
“Kemba has struggled the last five, six games and yet he comes up with the big plays, the rebounds,” Calhoun said.
Freshman guard Jeremy Lamb has stepped up at the right time for the Huskies. He’s averaged 17.8 points over the six games Walker has struggled - 10.6 more than he averaged in his first 16 contests.
Lamb’s teammates can remind him of their last matchup with St. John’s (13-9, 5-5) at MSG. The Red Storm snapped a nine-game losing streak in the series and sent UConn stumbling into the NIT with a 73-51 rout in the first round of last season’s Big East tournament.
Walker shot 4 of 17 in that contest.
St. John’s also wound up in the NIT, but it could be looking at its first trip to the NCAA tournament since 2002 in Steve Lavin’s first season on the sidelines. The Red Storm have home wins over Georgetown, Notre Dame and Duke since the start of January.
The 93-78 victory over the then-No. 3 Blue Devils on Jan. 30 capped a brutal eight-game stretch against ranked opponents, but St. John’s hasn’t looked very sharp the past two games. It escaped with a 58-56 win over against Rutgers last Wednesday despite shooting 36.7 percent, but couldn’t get a win in Lavin’s return to UCLA on Saturday, falling 66-59 despite a career-high 32 points from Dwight Hardy.
The Red Storm shot seven free throws - the Bruins took 41 - and were outrebounded 40-28. St. John’s minus-4.4 rebounding differential since Jan. 1 is among the nation’s worst.
“Wow,” Lavin said of the officiating. “Welcome to a road game.”
St. John’s has averaged 12.6 free-throw attempts in five road games in 2011, while getting to the line an average of 27.0 times in six home contests in that span.
The Red Storm are 11-2 when they attempt 21 free throws or more. None of UConn’s past eight opponents have attempted that many.