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Analysis: UConn men welcome break, team's road success, Clingan's contribution and other observations

Jan. 22—This is a welcomed rest and recovery week for the UConn men's basketball team.

The Huskies are in an eight-day break from game action after a busy and highly-successful stretch.

They racked up three wins last week to stretch their unbeaten streak to seven straight.

They're ranked No. 1 for the second straight week and sitting in sole possession of first place in the Big East.

But it's not a week off from the hard work that they've put in to reach this point.

Like they did during the holiday week break, they plan to take advantage of the practice time to make some improvements.

"By day four, we'll probably be itching to play," redshirt sophomore Alex Karaban said after Saturday's win at Villanova. "But I think the first couple of days, we're really going to enjoy it. We really need the break. We'll definitely use it wisely. But, at the same time, it's going to be a great opportunity for us to get better."

Some observations while waiting for UConn to return to action Sunday afternoon against Xavier in Hartford:

— Coach Dan Hurley has several things on his to do list for practice for this week.

While Hurley has seen improvement on the defensive end, he pointed out that the Huskies haven't been as good offensively in recent games.

After scoring at least 80 points in four straight league games, they've averaged 64 points in the last two and converted just 37.8% from the field. Some of that dropoff has to do with facing stiffer competition in Creighton and Villanova.

They'll be working on getting sophomore center Donovan Clingan more involved in the offense. Against Villanova, Clingaly took only four shots, making three, in 24 minutes in his second game back from a foot injury.

Clingan's playing time and contribution will ramp up as his conditioning improves.

"Now that Donovan is back, we'll have some practice time where we can offensively do some things where he could become a much bigger factor for us offensively," Hurley said. "With the way he's come back to the lineup, we had no practice time to integrate him."

If opposing defenses have to pay extra attention to Clingan, his teammates will benefit and UConn's offensive output increase.

— Last season, Hurley took some heat from critics for UConn's struggles in tight games. The Huskies went 6-5 in games decided by single digits, including four losses by under four points.

The Huskies are considerably better this season. With a one-point win at Villanova, they improved to 4-1 in single digit games. Three of those wins came on the road.

On Saturday, Hurley pointed to UConn's championship level confidence for its ability to deliver in the clutch.

Given the fiercely competitive state of the Big East, UConn will be involved in more heart-thumping finishes.

On Saturday alone, three Big East games were decided by one point and one by three points in triple overtime.

"Just stay in the fight, it's a Big East game," Hurley told his team during Saturday's game. "You've to be able to win all types of games. You've got to be able to win these Big East battles where it is super physical and the defense is really outstanding on both ends. To get a rebound, you've got to be willing to go to hell and back in a game like this. You've got to be able to adjust to the game.

"... These are not like SEC or ACC type of games, either. This is a manhood test every time you step on the court in the Big East. It's UFC type stuff, like steel cage. It's elbows. It's Jiu-Jitsu. It's Muay Thai. It's everything."

— UConn's success on the road is one significant reason why it is a leading contender for the Big East regular season title.

Since losing at Seton Hall last season on Jan. 18, the Huskies are 7-2 in league road games.

They've won three straight since suffering a 15-point loss at Seton Hall on Dec. 20.

"We have confidence when we go on the road," Hurley said. "Obviously, you have regrettable performances during the year. Credit Seton Hall for the way they played. Donovan going out of that game had a huge impact on how we performed. But you also see what Seton Hall is doing.

"Going back to last year's loss versus Seton Hall, we've got a pretty good record right now and pretty good confidence that we're supposed to win regardless of the situation."

News and notes

— UConn received 44 first place votes as the No. 1 team in Monday's AP top 25. No. 2 Purdue had 17 votes. ... Tristen Newton earned his first Big East player of the week honor this season after averaging 20.5 points, 7.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists in two wins last week.

g.keefe@theday.com