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UConn men plan to lean on its veterans during two-game road trip

Jan. 4—Unexpected things tend to happen in Big East road games.

Status doesn't matter.

Just ask UConn.

The Huskies went into their first Big East road game this season at Seton Hall on Dec. 20 as the number five ranked team in the country and favorites and walked out on the losing end of a humbling 75-60 score.

On Friday, they'll play their first road game since that defeat, facing Butler at 6:30 p.m. at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

No. 4 UConn (12-2, 2-1) will lean on its veterans more than ever playing in front of a hostile crowd against a better than expected Butler (10-4, 1-2).

"Your vets have got to lead the way on the road," coach Dan Hurley said on Thursday. "Your best players have got to play well away from home because it's tougher on the younger guys and tougher on the role players. ... The guys that have been part of the national championship team and last year's success have got to play well.

".... It's a lot easier for younger players to play well at home and neutral court games. But taking the show on the road, it's about the veterans and they've got to lead the way."

Hurley was referring to Tristen Newton, Alex Karaban and Hassan Diarra, who helped the Huskies lift the program's fifth national championship trophy in April as well as Cam Spencer, a graduate guard in his first season in Storrs. While at Rutgers, Spencer played in some tough Big Ten road environments.

As has been proven through the league's storied history, it's difficult to win a Big East road game.

So far this season, only Villanova, Xavier and Seton Hall own Big East road wins, and the Wildcats have two.

Last year, the Huskies went 5-5 away from home in conference play and that contributed to them falling out of contention for the Big East regular season crown.

They'll be without starting center Donovan Clingan (foot injury) for the third straight game on Friday as they begin a two-game road trip. After visiting Butler, they'll play Xavier on Wednesday at the Cintas Center in Cincinnati, where they lost last year.

Picked to finish 10th in the Big East preseason coaches' poll, Butler is the biggest surprise in the league. The Bulldogs are already just four wins shy of last season's overall total.

With only three returning players, Butler is almost a completely new team from that one that went 14-18 overall, 6-14 in the Big East last season.

Coach Thad Matta added 10 players — six transfers and four freshmen. Four newcomers are starters — St. John's transfer Posh Alexander, California-Irvine transfer DJ Davis, Northeastern transfer Jahmyl Telfort and Michigan State transfer Pierre Books II, who all average in double figures for points.

So the Bulldogs, who have dropped all seven meetings in the series with the Huskies by double digits, won't be pushovers.

"The ability in the portal area to be able to flip the roster and make some of the moves they've made to put together an NCAA caliber team, it speaks to what you can do quickly now in today's college basketball that you wouldn't have been able to do years back...," Hurley said. "Across the board, Thad is one of the best and it's not surprising."

The Huskies are riding momentum from back-to-back home wins over St. John's and DePaul.

Karaban believes challenging experiences like playing at Kansas, a non-conference game that UConn narrowly lost on Dec. 1, will benefit the Huskies during this road trip.

"It prepared us tremendously," Karaban said. "Hinkle Fielhouse is one of the best arenas, super underrated, and the Cintas Center, we know about it from last year. It's going to be two hard road environments coming up for us, but I think we're more than ready for it."

The Huskies are trying to continue to improve and win games while waiting for Clingan, who's expected to be out for a few more weeks, to return. Hurley said that Clingan has "been working really hard and getting himself in really, really good shape."

They're already put together an impressive resume through 14 games.

"I like where we are," Hurley said. "Obviously, your goal every year, you want to be sitting where we are as the head coach at UConn feeling like you're in contention. ... Getting Donovan back, he's such an important piece to us being elite. In the meantime right now, it is a chance for us to grow and mature and go through some hard things and try to find different ways to win until we're whole again.

"Then maybe we can make it look really, really beautiful basketball again because he certainly changes things."

Except for Clingan, UConn is fairly healthy. Although the Huskies are dealing with some things that are typical for this time of year.

"Some colds, some flus are going through the team," Hurley said. "That's what makes the regular season championship so tough to win because you've got to be mentally and physically tough over a several month grind. But, overall, pretty healthy."

g.keefe@theday.com

No. 4 UCONN at BUTLER

Location: Hinkle Fieldhouse, Indianapolis.

Tip time: 6:30 p.m. (FS1)

Records: UConn 12-2, 2-1; Butler 10-4, 1-2

Last game: UConn beat DePaul, 85-56, Tuesday; Butler lost at St. John's, 86-70, Tuesday

Series: UConn leads, 7-0, winning last season 86-56 at home and 68-46 on the road

Probable starters: UConn, 6-5 graduate guard Tristen Newton (15 pts, 6.8 rebs, 5.7 assists), 6-6 graduate guard Cam Spencer (15.2 pts, 3.9 rebs), 6-6 fr. guard Stephon Castle (8.9 pts, 4.1 rebs), 6-8 r-so. forward Alex Karaban (14.4 pts, 6 rebs), 6-10 jr. center Samson Johnson (6.5 pts, 3.6 rebs)

Butler, 6-0 sr. guard Posh Alexander (10.7 pts, 5.1 assists), 6-1 sr. guard DJ Davis (13.6 pts, 3.1 rebs), 6-6 jr. forward Pierre Brooks II (16.4 pts, 4.4 rebs), 6-7 sr. forward Jahmyl Telfort (14.4 pts, 4.6 rebs, 3.1 assists), 6-10 grad center Jalen Thomas (5.6 pts, 6.7 rebs)

Noteworthy: UConn won all seven meetings in the series by double digits. ... Huskies are 0-2 in true road games. ... Bulldogs are 8-0 at home. ... Butler beat Georgetown, lost at Providence (OT) and at St. John's in Big East play. ... The two teams met in the 2011 national championship game that UConn won 53-41 in Houston. ...Top reserve: 7-1 sr. center Andre Screen (7.4 pts, 5.1 rebs). ... Bulldogs score 82.2 pts per game, allow 71.9 pts. Third in the nation in fewest fouls committed at 12.9 per game and 20th in free throw shooting at 77.2%. ...... Alexander 2nd in Big East in steals per game at 2.0 and fifth in assists at 5.1. ... Hot: As a starter the last two games, Johnson averaged 12 points and went 11 for 15 from the field. Cold: Newton 4 for 17 from the field in the last two games. ... Huskies lead the Big East in scoring offense (83.1 pts), scoring margin (19.5) and field goal percentage (50.2, 15th in the nation). ... Spencer 14th in the country in 3-pt FG% at 45.56. ... Injury news: Donovan Clingan (foot) out for third straight game. ... Up next: UConn visits Xavier in Cincinnati at 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday.