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Playing No. 4 UConn is a more than just another Big East game for Xavier

Jan. 9—Any time UConn, the defending national champion and a school with a rich men's basketball history, walks into an opposing Big East arena, it is more than just another game.

It's an event and a chance for the home team to secure a statement win.

Just ask Xavier coach Sean Miller, whose team hosts the fourth-ranked Huskies at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Cintas Center in Cincinnati.

"UConn is a big deal because they're so good, because of what they did a year ago and what their program has done over the last 30 years," Miller told local reporters on Tuesday. "UConn means something and it means something to your fans. I'm sure that they're well-versed in that you're going to get everybody's best shot.

"But if you don't give them your best shot, you're going to have a hard night ahead of you because they're really good. They're good at what they do. They're good on offense and defense. They've got a terrific coach and they've got really good players. They're battle-tested.

"When you win a national championship and you go deep into the tournament and you return a couple starters from that experience, you don't get scared easily. You've been through so much. That's part of UConn's DNA, that they're going to be ready."

Xavier certainly was ready last season when UConn, undefeated and ranked No. 2, visited on New Year's Eve. The Musketeers pulled off the upset by an 83-73 score.

About three weeks later, Xavier won the rematch in Storrs, 82-79. The Musketeers were the only Big East team to sweep the Huskies in a regular season series in 2022-23.

UConn (13-2, 3-1) will be motivated to avenge those results. The Huskies are riding momentum from a three-game winning streak that included a come-from-behind victory at Butler on Friday.

The Huskies will be without starting center Donovan Clingan (foot injury) for the fourth straight game. In Clingan's absence, Hurley has been forced to use some smaller lineups, especially when foul trouble hits.

They need starters Alex Karaban, who fouled out against Butler, and Samson Johnson to stay on the court.

"I made the point to the group that it's not a sustainable way to win for us...," Hurley said. "We lost too many players from last year's team for Alex and Samson to commit brutal fouls. It's crazy to think about the position that we're in considering the fact that they've been in foul trouble.

".... We're trying to do this and the margin for error is very thin. It's thin with those guys on the court. It's not sustainable if they're not on the court."

The Musketeers (7-7, 1-2) are a dangerous team despite the loss of starter Zach Freemantle who's been out since preseason with a foot injury. They fell just short of securing a valuable road win last Wednesday, losing at Villanova, 66-65.

They're a strong defensive team, ranking second in the Big East in field goal percentage defense at 39.7%.

Transfer Quincy Olivari, who's second in the Big East in scoring at 17.9 points per game and one of 10 newcomers on the team, has been terrific at his new basketball home. Starting guard Desmond Claude (14.8 points), a New Haven native, is enjoying a superb sophomore season.

Hurley called Miller one of the best coaches in the country and the Cintas Center is a difficult place to play.

"The environment you get there at Xavier, it's as tough a place to play as you're going to play throughout the season," Hurley said. "Probably one of the top 10 hardest places to go get a win when the crowd is into it."

UConn's chances to secure a valuable road victory on Wednesday will be easier if veteran guard Tristen Newton regains his shooting stroke. He's 7 for 29 from the field in the last three games.

The Huskies have survived without Newton's usual production by relying on Cam Spencer and Karaban to carry the scoring load. Freshman Stephon Castle, who's averaged 14 points in the last two games, has provided a big boost.

"The biggest challenge with Steph, he's had back to back games where he's really helped us and had a couple really good games and we've got to keep him humble and keep him seeing the mistakes he's making while keeping him confident so he doesn't start to think this is easy, because it's really, really hard to play freshmen in college basketball team today."

News and notes

Hurley provided an update on Clingan's status. "The initial diagnosis was a three to four week injury with Donovan. We'll hit week three (Wednesday). Obviously, that's in the hands of our medical team. ... Do not look for him (Wednesday), at least on the court. He'll be on the bench." ... Hurley recruited Claude, who attended Putnam Science Academy, but filled the need for a guard with Corey Floyd, Jr. Floyd ended up transferring to Providence after one season in Storrs. "He hurt us a lot last year when we played them. He played really well. He's a tremendous player with a great future. None of us get them all right. I thought we had the right intentions."

g.keefe@theday.com

No. 4 UCONN at XAVIER

Location: Cintas Center, Cincinnati

Tip time: 8:30 p.m. (FS1)

Records: UConn 13-2, 3-1; Xavier 7-7, 1-2

Last game: UConn won at Butler, 88-81, Friday; Xavier lost at Villanova, 66-65, Wednesday

Series: UConn trails, 4-3, losing both meetings last season, 82-79 at home and 83-73 on the road.

Probable starters: UConn, 6-5 graduate guard Tristen Newton (15 pts, 6.5 rebs, 5.7 assists), 6-6 graduate guard Cam Spencer (15.1 pts, 3.9 rebs), 6-6 fr. guard Stephon Castle (9.4 pts, 4.7 rebs), 6-8 r-so. forward Alex Karaban (14.8 pts, 5.9 rebs), 6-10 jr. center Samson Johnson (6.6 pts, 3.8 rebs)

Xavier, 6-0 sr. guard Dayvion McKnight (9.7 pts, 5.2 assists), 6-3 grad guard Quincy Olivari (17.9 pts, 4.7 rebs), 6-6 so. guard Desmond Claude (14.8 pts, 4.8 rebs), 6-8 sr. forward Gytis Nemeiksa (6.6 pts, 4.9 rebs), 6-10 sr. forward Abou Ousmane (8.6 pts, 6.4 rebs)

Noteworthy: UConn lost three out of the last four meetings. ... In Big East play, Xavier beat Seton Hall (74-54), lost to Villanova and St. John's (81-66). ... Two non-conference losses came vs. teams currently in AP top 5 — No. 2 Houston, No. 1 Purdue. ... Xavier 1st in Big East in fast break points at 15.9 per game, 2nd in assists at 17.2, 2nd in FG% defense at 39.7. ... McKnight 1st in Big East in assist-to-turnover ratio at 3.65. ... Fr. Reid Ducharme is the younger brother of Caroline Ducharme, a guard on the UConn women's basketball team. He's appeared in just 5 games. ... Top reserve: 6-0 fr. guard Troy Green (5.8 pts). ... Hot: Castle is 11 for 15 from the field in last two games. Cold: Newton is 2 for 16 from three in the last three games. ... Huskies lead the Big East in scoring offense, assists per game, FG%, scoring margin, assist-to-turnover ratio. ... Injury news: Donovan Clingan (foot) out. ... Up next: UConn hosts Georgetown at noon at the XL Center in Hartford.