Jim Calhoun and Connecticut entered the Christmas break riding a five-game winning streak, but the Huskies will have to pick up where they left off without the guidance of their decorated coach.
Ninth-ranked Connecticut looks to overcome Calhoun's absence during Wednesday night's Big East opener at South Florida as he begins serving a three-game suspension for NCAA recruiting violations.
The Huskies concluded their non-conference schedule with a 10-1 mark after holding on to defeat Fairfield 79-71 on Thursday. UConn, which led by as many as 22 points in the second half, saw its lead cut to three with 2:23 left before finally closing it out.
"Obviously it wasn't the best way, especially in the second half, to leave," Calhoun said. "But I have faith in (assistant coach) George (Blaney) and our staff and they'll be just fine."
The Huskies, who host St. John's and visit Seton Hall following this contest, are 9-9 in games Calhoun has missed since he became their coach.
"We're going to miss coach dearly, of course," said freshman center Andre Drummond, who's posted a combined 40 points on 86.4 percent shooting over the last two games. "He's our biggest supporter."
UConn is 8-1 all-time against South Florida (7-6), with the lone defeat coming 75-68 on the road March 6, 2010. The Bulls have taken the Huskies to overtime in two of their last three losses in the series including a 66-61 defeat last Dec. 31.
"We've always played UConn very tough throughout the years and they're definitely one of the top programs in the country," Bulls coach Stan Heath told South Florida's official website. "It's great for us to be able to play them at home. We need to continue to improve and play better, but everybody is going to have to step up. We're going to need to play very well and hopefully playing at home will be an extra boost for us."
The Bulls lost 53-51 at Southern Miss on Thursday. Senior Augustus Gilchrist, who leads the team with 11.1 points per game, struggled to a 3-for-13 shooting effort after going 3 for 12 from the field in his previous game.
Gilchrist, however, is averaging 17.7 points - 5.6 more than his overall mark - in three career meetings with the Huskies.
In addition to an improved effort from Gilchrist, South Florida will surely need a big game from junior guard Jawanza Poland if it hopes to keep up with UConn.
Poland is still getting up to speed after sitting out the first 11 contests due to a back injury and a two-game suspension. He debuted with 13 points in a 70-55 win over Cleveland State on Dec. 19 but was held to seven after getting into foul trouble Thursday.
"He's still not in full-game shape but he still has the ability to make plays and get into the paint and hit mid-range shots, which should really help us on the offensive end with his explosive play," Heath said.
South Florida has won all seven of its home games by an average margin of 16.8 points, but has dropped three straight Big East openers and went just 3-15 in conference play last season.
The Bulls have also lost 15 in a row versus ranked opponents, including a 70-42 defeat at then-No. 15 Kansas on Dec. 3.
While slowing down swingman Jeremy Lamb, who ranks third in the league with 18.9 points per game, is surely a priority for the Bulls, quieting UConn sophomore Shabazz Napier could also be key.
Napier, who scored 24 points Thursday, has been hit or miss. He's posted six 20-point efforts but has a combined 33 points in his other five games.