UConn and Marquette will collide in Big East showdown Saturday

Feb. 16—Marquette took what UConn desperately wanted last season, winning both Big East regular season and conference tournament titles.

Now the No. 1 ranked Huskies (23-2, 13-1) can take a significant step toward dethroning the No. 4 Golden Eagles (19-5, 10-3) on Saturday. The two top Big East teams face off in the first of two meetings this season at 3 p.m. at the XL Center in Hartford.

"We're ready," sophomore Donovan Clingan said. "These are games that we had circled on our calendars. Our mindset has to be on point. Our preparation is on point. I know coach (Dan Hurley) has prepared us the right way. We've played the best of the best programs in non-conference and in conference.

"(Marquette) is a great team, a Final Four caliber team. We've just got to go out there and give everything that we've got."

UConn and Marquette, two of the preseason favorites to win the league, have been on a collision course since the Big East season started.

Both teams have lived up to lofty expectations, entering Saturday's big game riding momentum from long winning streaks — UConn has won 13 straight and Marquette eight.

"You knew it would be an anticipated matchup," Hurley said of his thoughts when the Big East schedule came out. "Obviously, with everything that they brought back from their team last year. They brought back 80 plus percent of their scoring from a team that dominated the league last year and they were picked to win the league. You knew that it would be an anticipated matchup from their end.

"I guess it works out like genius now that we've both held up our end of this and created just a great day and great matchup for college basketball and a great day for the Big East."

Saturday's outcome will play a major factor in whether UConn wins its first Big East regular season title in 18 years.

The first place Huskies can extend their lead in the Big East standings. After Saturday, they have only five regular season games remaining, including three on the road.

Coming off back to back road wins at Big East pushovers Georgetown and DePaul, UConn is eager to play a marquee game against a fellow national championship contender.

"There's a lot of excitement going into this game," redshirt sophomore Alex Karaban said. "When you play another top five team, it's just always exciting to see another level of competition. We know how good Marquette is this year, so we're super excited to get out there.

"We've been waiting for these types of games."

UConn and Marquette are similar in that both teams play unselfish basketball and rely on balanced scoring attacks.

The two programs share something else in common — a winning culture.

"When you play against teams like UConn and Marquette, what you appreciate when you watch the film of opponents like this, is that you're also playing against the culture, too," said Hurley. "You can see the buy-in on the bench and the way they interact with each other and with the way the (coach) Shaka (Smart) is running his program.

"Some games, I think we go in with a culture advantage. .. But, in this game, you can see the culture on the other side. So you get the quality of team, you also get two great cultures playing."

In an intriguing match-up, the point guard position will feature two strong contenders for the Big East player of the year in UConn's Tristen Newton and Marquette's Tyler Kolek, last season's award winner and preseason pick.

Few, if any, college basketball players in the country are playing better in recent weeks than the crafty Kolek, who is averaging 26 points, nine assists and six rebounds in the last four games.

"There's very few players of his caliber in college that are as old as he is," Hurley said. "He's mature physically. His game is fully matured. ... Steve Nash college level, pick your poison type of thing."

Another important battle to watch is between two talented big men — 7-foot-1 Clingan versus 6-11 Oso Ighodaro, a strong, mobile center.

For UConn to win, it will require a championship level performance and championship level intensity, according to Hurley.

"Who plays harder and who's tougher," said Karaban when asked about what will decide the game. "We know both teams are going to score and both teams have excellent players. It's really, who's willing to make plays, who's willing to be tougher and who's willing to execute the game plan. I think whoever does that will win."

You'd think motivation would be on UConn's side.

The Huskies lost the last meeting, falling by two points in the Big East semifinals at Madison Square Garden last March.

"They knocked us on our heels in that game at the Garden with their physicality and the force they played with," Hurley said. "We were showing up at MSG for just a basketball game. But in these types of matchups, especially in the Big East with the way these games are officiated and the style of play in our league, you've got to be ready for the basketball game and the execution part but also you've got to be ready for the street fight, too."

"... We know (Saturday) feels like a game between two of the truly best teams in the country. We're going to find out some things about where we're at. It's one of six regular season games we have left. Obviously, (Saturday's) game is a big one. It's going to have a different type of electricity."


Location: XL Center, Hartford

Tip time: 3 p.m. (Ch. 61)

Records: UConn 23-2, 13-1; Marquette 19-5, 10-3

Last game: UConn won at DePaul, 101-65; Marquette won at Butler, 78-72, Tuesday

Series: Tied at 8-8, but UConn has lost two of the last three including 70-68 in Big East semifinals last March.

Probable starters: UConn, 6-5 graduate guard Tristen Newton (15 pts, 6.7 rebs, 5.7 assists), 6-4 graduate guard Cam Spencer (15.2 pts, 4.6 rebs), 6-6 fr. guard Stephon Castle (11.2 pts, 4.4 rebs), 6-8 r-so. forward Alex Karaban (14.9 pts, 5.5 rebs), 7-2 so. center Donovan Clingan (12.1 pts, 6.4 rebs, 2.2 blks)

Marquette, 6-3 sr. guard Tyler Kolek (16.1 pts, 7.4 assists, 5 rebs), 6-5 jr. guard Kam Jones (14.3 pts, 2.6 rebs), 6-3 jr. guard Stevie Mitchell (8.2 pts, 3.6 rebs), 6-8 jr. forward David Joplin (10.7 pts, 3.4 rebs), 6-11 sr. forward Oso Ighodaro (14.3 pts, 7.5 rebs)

Noteworthy: UConn off to its best start since opening the 2008-09 season at 24-1. ... The Huskies need one win for the most Big East wins under Hurley. ... First home matchup between top five Big East teams since No. 1 UConn faced No. 4 Pittsburgh on Feb. 16, 2009 in Hartford. ... Marquette 3-11 all-time vs. the No. 1 team, most recently beating Kansas, 73-59, in the Maui Invitational on Nov. 21. ... Top reserve: 6-1 so. forward Ben Gold (4.9 pts, 3.2 rebs). ... Marquette leads BE overall in steals per game at 8.7 and turnover margin (+5.2). ... Hot: In the last two games, Kolek is averaging 27 pts, 9 assists and 7 rebounds while shooting 55.3% from the field, 58.3% from three. Cold: UConn's opponents have scored less than 68 points in nine straight games. ... More hot and cold: Karaban has made 16 of his last 24 FG attempts (66.7%), including 9 for 15 threes. Newton has hit 14 of his last 43 FG attempts (32.6%). ... UConn 13-0 at home, Marquette 6-3 on the road. Huskies first in the Big East overall in scoring offense (82.0 pts), scoring defense (64.1), scoring margin (+17.9), FG % (50.1), FG% defense (39.8), 3-pt FG% (36.7), 3-pt FG% defense (32.0), rebounding margin (+8.6), assists per game (18.0). ... Prior to Friday's action, UConn sat at No. 4 in the NCAA Net Rankings, Marquette at No. 10. ... Up next: UConn visits No. 17 Creighton Tuesday night at 8:30.