UConn men's basketball: Road games to test Huskies

Matt Stout

Jeff Adrien loves road games. The act of pulling on the UConn men’s basketball team’s road blues, silencing a standing room-only crowd and playing with that us-against-the-world mentality — when you’re winning, there’s perhaps nothing like it.

“It’s like 15 versus 10,000 or 12,000,” the junior forward explained. “Wherever we’re at, it’s good.”

It’s a feeling the Huskies rarely experienced last season.

Starting with a 71-61 loss at West Virginia on Dec. 30 — its first setback in any arena last year — UConn’s inability to win on the road ultimately derailed its season. At 2-8, the Huskies lost six games by 10 or more points, and the downward spiral that began after an 11-0 start only became worse with each fruitless road trip.

Friday, UConn plays its first true road game of this year at Central Florida’s new UCF Arena. No Husky has ever stepped foot into the 4-month-old facility, but they feel like they know exactly what to expect.

“Our first road game last year was West Virginia and this young team really wasn’t ready for that at all, and almost got thrown into the fire basically,” said A.J. Price, one of 13 first- or second-year players on last year’s team. “But this year, we have had some tough games already, although none of them were truly road games, but we feel much more equipped as a team, as a unit to go anywhere and play anybody tough.”

That was the point of the team’s early season scheduling, which pitted the Huskies against Gardner-Webb and No. 2 Memphis at Madison Square Garden and then-No.19 Gonzaga in Boston’s TD Banknorth Garden.

Both trips, UConn had the bigger fan following — sheer proximity being the reason — and Memphis and Gonzaga each won. But it gave the Huskies a chance to experience a tournament-like atmosphere (especially against Memphis) and further instill what it takes to win away from Gampel Pavilion.

“It takes chemistry, it takes heart, leadership, it takes a lot of different things” to be a good road team, Price said. “And I think we have all those attributes on this team, and we’ll be able to go into a building and win a very tough game.”

UCF, picked to finish sixth in Conference USA to start the season, is expected to provide that. At 5-5 overall, the Knights are 4-1 in their new digs, undefeated Mississippi (11-0) being the only survivor. But like most of the non-conference portion of the schedule, it’s essentially a primer for Big East play, which puts the Huskies on the road for three of their first four games.

As last year wore on, long scoreless stretches killed UConn’s hopes of winning many games on the road, one of the worst coming in the final regular-season game of the year when the Huskies scored one point in the first six minutes of the second half in a 59-46 loss at Georgetown. It was their lowest offensive output of the season.

“We had the worst droughts of any team I’ve had, we had terrible droughts,” said UConn coach Jim Calhoun. “But we haven’t had any terrible droughts this year. — I think our defense can get us going. We may not turn you over, but it can get us going better.”

Entering their 105-60 win over Maine on Saturday, the Huskies led the country in blocked shots (9.1 per game) and were fourth in field-goal percentage defense (35.4 percent). Their efforts against the Black Bears and Quinnipiac the Sunday before — both teams shot below 35 percent and rarely enjoyed a sizable run — were also encouraging.

“The one thing we can bring on the road is defense,” Adrien said. “If we’re not scoring or anything, we can rely on our defense and that will get us some easy buckets. We can’t bring the crowd, we can’t bring (whatever else), but that’s something we can bring on the road, is defense.”

And, of course, they’ll be toting a little more confidence.

“This team doesn’t seem to have a really good pulse as far as (being) nervous,” Calhoun said. “I think it is (ready to win on the road). I think it’s got to.”

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